Air Force officer’s request for religious accommodation threatens his career

Tuesday, July 27, 1999

An Air Force officer may have jeopardized his career in the service by requesting religious accommodation of his Roman Catholic beliefs.

Lt. Ryan Berry objects, on religious grounds, to serving alone with a female in an underground missile silo because, he said, the situation puts him in a potentially compromising situation and has the appearance of evil.

Since May 1997, the Air Force has accommodated Berry's request for exemption from working with a female partner in North Dakota's underground missile launch centers, on the grounds that it would conflict with his conservative religious beliefs. Berry — a West Point graduate, husband and father — said that he doesn't object to women in the military, but he doesn't want to work with them in an area the size of a school bus, where the workday is 24 hours long.

Each of the underground silos contains a missile-launch control console, a bunk and lavatory. The two persons on duty take turns at the control console and sleeping.

Late last year, squadron members began complaining that Berry was receiving preferential treatment and that his accommodation was disrupting company shift scheduling. In response to the complaints, commanders at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., revoked Berry's accommodation, according to Robert Maginnis, a retired lieutenant colonel and senior director of national security and foreign affairs for the Family Research Council. The Family Research Council has called on the Air Force to reinstate the religious accommodation granted Berry when he first started at Minot.

“Berry has specific faith-based objections to doing his duty with women because it goes against his Catholic beliefs about avoiding the appearance of evil,” Maginnis said.

After the Air Force recalled Berry's religious waiver, he was removed from missile duty and received a negative performance evaluation from his wing commander.

In the April evaluation, Col. Ronald Haeckel wrote that Berry refused to accept the personal responsibilities of a missile combat crew member and would not perform duties with fully qualified female crew members.

“Berry never disobeyed an order, he simply requested accommodation of his Catholic beliefs,” Henry L. Hamilton, Berry's attorney said. “He was punished for his beliefs, not based on his merits.”

Hamilton said it is possible that unfavorable remarks on Berry's performance evaluation could prevent him from being promoted in August and could end his military career.

Berry received two favorable evaluations in February, prior to Haeckel's evaluation. The previous reports lauded him as a “highly capable officer” who exhibits a “strong work ethic” and is “loaded with potential.” He was also marked as one of the best and an asset to the organization.

“If Berry's request hadn't been seen as going against the military's feminist agenda, I think it would have been granted,” Hamilton said. The military's interest in gender integration outweighs its interest in accommodating individual religious beliefs, he said.

“For the Air Force, the issue is not one of religious accommodation; it's an issue of good order and discipline,” said Lt. Col. Donald Miles, spokesperson for Air Force Base Command.

Miles said that good order and discipline are paramount to the Air Force's execution of its duties. When an officer's actions are disruptive, Miles said, commanders are obligated to do what is necessary to repair company morale.

In a prepared statement, Air Force Chaplain Maj. Gen. William Dendinger wrote that the Air Force accommodates religious practices, provided they are within the parameters of good order and discipline, health and safety.

“Lt. Berry's case is not a matter of accommodating a specific religious practice but accommodation of his personal religious conviction,” Dendinger wrote. “Individuals must resolve conflicts that may arise between religious belief, matters of conscience, and demands of military duty.”

Now, Berry must wait to see whether Maj. Gen. Thomas Neary, commander of the 20th Air Force, endorses Haeckel's evaluation. If Neary confirms the evaluation, it will become part of Berry's personnel record and will be considered by a promotion board.

Hamilton said that Berry has other avenues of appeal pursuant to Air Force regulations, including asking an appeals board to invalidate the report. He has already requested that Haeckel approve a new career field for him. Only after all other administrative means for appeal have been exhausted is court an option, he said.

On July 22, a letter addressed to Neary and signed by 77 members of the U.S. House of Representatives was sent to the Pentagon in support of Berry. The letter requested that the Air Force honor his request for a religious waiver and expressed concern that the lack of accommodation for religious beliefs could discourage men and women of faith from pursuing careers in the military, said Maginnis.

Currently, Berry is working as the overseer of a training simulator.