My Story of Religious Discrimination

Hi Mikey,

My name is Steven (last name withheld) and I am an atheist who served in the Air Force from 198X-20XX. I’ve recently become aware of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and the excellent work that you’re doing to support military members facing religious discrimination.

During my 20 years in the Air Force, I faced blatant, open, caustic religious discrimination on numerous occasions. That discrimination cost me a promotion and ultimately my self-worth. Air Force leaders knew that religious discrimination could be practiced with impunity and they did. Non-Christians serving in the military had nobody to protect them. I tried on one occasion to turn to the Air Force Equal Opportunity Office, but they swept me under the carpet so quick that it made my head spin. It was clear that they were complicit and would never be part of a solution. It is a relief to know that service members can turn to MRFF for protection. It doesn’t diminish the discrimination that was inflicted on countless of us for decades, but positive change has to start somewhere. For what it’s worth, and in hopes that it may help a corrupt system change, I’d like to recount my story to MRFF.

The religious discrimination that I faced while in the military still weighs very heavy on me. During the time of my service, Air Force leadership was thought of as a white, Christian, good-ole-boys club. In the latter part of my career, I saw the positive changes that allowed a cleaning up of attitudes toward minorities and women, but never toward the non-religious. The non-religious remained the one group toward whom discrimination was never checked. From 2002 to 2005, I worked at the Air Logistics Center at Tinker AFB. I was a major coming up for Lt. Col. and worked as the chief of a small analysis shop in support of the AWACS aircraft. My supervisor was Col. (name withheld) who was in charge of a several hundred person division. He was a Christian and very aggressive about pushing his religious views on everybody under his command. Division meetings frequently involved prayers and every Christmas we were all chided to “remember the reason for the season.”

At some point early on in my Tinker assignment, I was invited by a friend to attend a debate at a local university. The topic of the debate was “The Existence of God.” The start time was early enough that it required me to leave work about an hour early. I probably could have just left, but as a courtesy to Col. (name withheld), I stuck my head in his office to let him know that I was leaving a little early. He could have just said ok and let it go, but instead the following conversation transpired:

Col. (name withheld): Why do you need to leave early?

Me: I’m heading over to the university to attend a debate.

Col. (name withheld) (suspiciously): What’s the debate about?

Me: It’s a debate between two professors on the existence of God.

Col. (name withheld) (after a long pause): You’re not one of “those” are you?

Me: What do you mean sir?

Col. (name withheld) (with as much derision as he could muster): An atheist

Me: Yes sir, I am.

Col. (name withheld) (after a good 20 second pause): Well, I’m going to try not to hold that against you.

If he did try not to hold it against me, I never saw it. In what turned out to be unfortunate timing, my in-the-zone promotion board for Lt. Col. was soon coming up. The process of meeting the promotion board started with the preparation of a promotion recommendation form (PRF). The form had three boxes at the bottom: definitely promote (DP), promote (P), and do not promote (DNP). Each unit was given a number of DPs to distribute to their best and that really was the primary way to get promoted. In order to determine who received the DPs, a meeting was held and each section leader (Col. Singer in my case) had to go fight for their people. When the meeting came to decide who would get the DPs, Col. (name withheld) didn’t even bother to show. Needless to say, I did not get a DP even with a strong, deserving record. In an act of complete naivety, I decided to go up the chain of command to Col. (name withheld) ’s boss who was also an O-6, Col. Robert (name withheld). I recounted the above story to Col. (name withheld) who sat for a long while considering what I had said. After the long pause he said: “Atheism is wrong.” He then continued on to lecture me on how the United States is founded on Christianity. I replied that I respectfully disagree to which he angrily asked: “Then why is God in the constitution?” I had to tell a full colonel with almost 30 years of service that God is not in the constitution. I was excused from the meeting after that.

The PRFs were then all sent to the commander of the ALC, General Polly Peyer. Each commander is allowed to use the phrase “if I had one more DP” once and Gen. Peyer used her phrase on me. In fact, she wrote on my PRF: “DP…If I had one more it would be his… top 15% of 67 FGOs that I rate.” 33% of eligible FGOs were given DPs, but even as a top 15% FGO, I didn’t get one because Col. (name withheld) didn’t want me to have it. It was his way of punishing me for being an atheist and he won. I didn’t get promoted to Lt. Col. and spent the next five years as a passed over major.

Passed over majors are not treated well in the Air Force. It comes with a stigma. I was given the worst of crap jobs and denied opportunities. I spent the last two years as little more than a coffee boy. It was depressing, demoralizing, life-changing. Since that time I’ve lived with the burden of knowing that I was qualified to be a Lt. Col., I deserved to be a Lt. Col., but it was taken from me because I am an atheist. Even my reduced retirement pay serves as a monthly reminder that I am still being punished by the Air Force for being an atheist. Some day before I die, I would love to hear acknowledgement from the Air Force that these things happened and that they were wrong. However, I know that’s unlikely to ever come.

It seems that more and more stories of various types of discriminations are coming out these days, and, in some cases, the perpetrators are even being exposed and made to answer for their behavior.

Hopefully, MRFF can help bring long overdue admissions from the military and society at large that this discrimination is still happening and that it has to stop.


Steven (name withheld), Major USAF Retired





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1 Comment

  1. G

    Passed over people are view as lepers and losers and many people have at least three attitudes towards people who are passed over:

    1) It is their own fault if they didn’t get promoted

    2) Something is wrong with them if they didn’t get promoted.

    3) Not everyone can make colonel, sergeant major, etc.

    These people don’t bother or care to learn about why the people didn’t get promoted such as various forms of discriminations, dealing with bad bosses who are bullies or narcissists, not having a mentor, not having the right connections, not enough ticket punching, being in the wrong MOS at the wrong time due to various reasons, too many people in the higher that you are trying to get, too many people in your own rank who are waiting to get promoted from the last promotion list or who in the current promotion list, etc. In addition, the promotion boards usually take the word of the supervisor who is not recommending you for promotion because they rely on the supervisor’s experience, judgment, and wisdom not knowing that the supervisor is a bad person. Also, the promotion board has to many files to look at and don’t have the time to really do a really good evaluation on you. They are also usually looking at why you shouldn’t be promoted.

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