Martyr Movie: Ted Cruz’s Claims About ‘Religious Freedom’ Persecution Were Debunked Long Ago

With Donald Trump getting all the attention in the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, other candidates are getting increasingly desperate to stay relevant. Enter U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Tea Party darling who is putting in an all-out effort to court evangelical voters.

Last week, Cruz staged an Iowa rally with “special guests victimized by government persecution.” He followed that event with the release of a campaign video filled with supposed “religious liberty” martyrs. But there’s one big problem – most of the claims about these people are not only false, they were debunked years ago in some instances.

As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote yesterday, Cruz made some big, bogus claims. Among them was the story of Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Phillip Monk, who was supposedly “relieved of duty for expressing a traditional view of marriage.”

Monk claimed that he was taken out of his position at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas in July 2013 because he disagreed with his commanding officer’s stand on marriage equality. Monk, who had been first sergeant of the base, said that he was penalized after he and his superior officer, a major, disagreed over what actions should be taken against a military training instructor who made discriminatory remarks against gays during a session with trainees.

Monk claimed that the major, who is a lesbian, argued with him over what to do about the matter. He claims that during the disagreement, she pressured him to state his views on same-sex marriage and queried him about his religious views. The conversation, Monk said, grew heated. Shortly after that, he was reassigned.

But as AU pointed out, Monk’s story didn’t hold up. Military Times reported that the Air Force investigated the matter and reported that Col. Mark Camerer, a Lackland officer who oversaw the inquiry, determined that Monk and the major had never discussed religion.

“The weight of the evidence shows that religion was never discussed between the two,” Camerer said in documents released by the Air Education and Training Command. “In the end, this is a case about command authority, good order and discipline, and civil rights – not religious freedoms.”

The Air Force also found that Monk has made false official statements, although it declined to punish him for that.

The investigation also pointed out that Monk’s reassignment was a routine matter. He was not abruptly reas­sign­ed, the Air Force report said. Rath­er, he was moved to another unit in Lackland as planned and had been not­ified about the pending move in April.

Americans United reported the truth behind Monk’s tall tale back in November 2013. Nonetheless, Liberty Institute attorney Kelly Shackelford, who represented Monk, kept up the “persecution” story as recently as October 2014. And now here we are in 2015, still hearing about the “victimization” of Sgt. Monk. The truth, it seems, does not matter.

Another masquerading martyr mentioned in Cruz’s ad is Kelvin Cochran, the fired former fire chief of Atlanta. The video stated Cochran was “suspended and terminated from his decorated post…because of his Christian beliefs on homosexuality.”

This is yet another old yarn, which Americans United debunked months ago. Cochran was terminated in January for distributing a hateful self-published book to some of his employees in 2014. Titled Who Told You That You Were Naked, the 2013 work described homosexuality as “unclean,” “a sexual perversion,” “vulgar” and “inappropriate.” Cochran likened it to bestiality.

When word got out in November that Cochran had handed out copies of his overtly Christian tome to his employees, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed suspended him for one month.

But Cochran didn’t accept his punishment in silence. During a December meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention, Cochran declined to discuss his suspension, but did reference it – while also promoting his book.

Now here’s the kicker: USA Today reported that Reed did not list anti-gay discrimination as the reason Cochran was let go. Officially, he was fired for his decision to hand out the book because it violated the city code of conduct.

In other words, Cochran broke the rules and he was rightly punished. He was not fired because of his faith.

Cruz’s video also tells the story of Aaron and Melissa Klein, owners of the Oregon bakery Sweet Cakes by Melissa. The Kleins refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, leading to a discrimination complaint. Cruz claimed the couple was subjected to a “smear campaign and economic boycott,” but that fails to acknowledge what the Kleins did to the couple they had already victimized.

As Stern noted, Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer fled their home for another state after receiving piles of hate mail and some death threats. How did that happen? The Kleins posted the couple’s personal contact information online. As a result, the Kleins were later ordered to pay $135,000 in damages.

At the end the day, the people Cruz hopes to reach don’t care much about facts so these stories are the kind of thing that will fire them up. But one can’t help but wonder if his DVD of tall tales will do the trick. Polls show that Cruz’s Religious Right targets seem to have abandoned him in favor of – you guessed it – Donald Trump.

The main takeaway here, however, has little to do with the GOP horse race. Religious zealots are drawn to the concept of martyrdom, but the reality is that America’s dizzying level of religious freedom makes victims of genuine religious discrimination hard to come by (unless you’re a minority faith or viewpoint). So in the absence of actual fundamentalist martyrs, Cruz and his allies have had to invent some.