Former Marine Claims Her Religious Liberty Violated, Military’s Highest Court Says No

By Dustin Siggins Published on August 12, 2016

A woman whose Marine career was ended with a demotion and a bad conduct discharge has lost her religious liberty case in front of the military’s highest court. Former Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling claimed that she was persecuted for posting a Bible verse on her computer, but in a complicated decision the military’s Court of Appeals ruled that her superior’s order to take down the verse did not violate her religious liberty, and didn’t affect the Marines’ decision that she was being insubordinate in other ways as well.

Former Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling’s attorneys with First Liberty Institute say they’ll appeal her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They argue that a Bible-based quote on her desk should never have been removed by a superior with whom Sterling had a conflict. They did not challenge the rest of the decision on the other grounds for demotion and discharge.

Background: A Contentious Quotation

In 2014, Sterling was court-martialed for several incidents involving orders from her superiors. (See The Stream’s prior reporting here.) They included refusing an order to hand passes to family members visiting Marines, not showing up for duty when family members visited, lying about why she didn’t want to wear a required uniform for work and refusing to remove a Bible-based quote from her workspace.

It is this latter charge that Sterling has brought through the military’s court system, citing rights under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). She says the quote on her desk – visible mostly to her – was a variation on Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”

A superior viewed the quote as combative, and ordered Sterling to remove the quote. When she did not, the superior took it down — leading to a back-and-forth during which the quotes were placed and removed multiple times.

In its ruling, a lower court that ruled against Sterling said the Bible quotes were removed inside the scope of federal law, given the context of Sterling’s relationship with her superiors.

“While locked in an antagonistic relationship with her superiors — a relationship surely visible to other Marines in the unit — placing visual reminders at her shared workspace that ‘no weapon formed against me shall prosper’ could certainly undercut good order and discipline,” said the court. “When considered in context, we find that the verbiage in these signs could be interpreted as combative and agree with the military judge that the signs placement in the shared workspace could therefore ‘easily be seen as contrary to good order and discipline.’”

The lower court also found that Sterling did not tell her superior of the religious nature of the quotes. In its decision this week against the former Marine, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces likewise found this significant. According to the court, Sterling “did not inform the person who ordered her to remove the signs that they had had any religious significance to Appellant, [therefore] the words in context could easily be seen as combative in tone, and the record reflects that their religious connotation was neither revealed nor raised until mid-trial.”

Sterling’s Attorney: She was Denied Liberty

A number of diverse religious groups have stood behind Sterling, as have the legal organizations Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Alliance Defending Freedom. Her case was argued by former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement.

Mike Berry, First Liberty Institute’s Director of Military Affairs, told The Stream that the court’s notation that religious influences were not raised until trial is irrelevant. “As the dissent points out, RFRA does not have a ‘Mother may I?’ requirement. Requiring individuals to request permission before engaging in religious activity defies common sense,” said Berry in an e-mail.

The government should not require us to declare our religious beliefs or intentions before we engage in religious activity. The majority even recognized this when it stated a Muslim wearing a hijab would be obviously religious, and therefore the Muslim need not state religious intent. But apparently a Christian who posts a Bible verse must declare to all that displaying a Bible verse is religious. Again, that defies common sense.

A spokesperson for an atheist group that opposes Sterling’s case previously told The Stream that the case lacks merit, and wrote in The Huffington Post that Sterling’s supporters are making her an inappropriate cause celebre because the case has no bearing on Sterling’s status in the military.

First Liberty is not arguing that Sterling’s discharge and court-martial should be overturned. Berry argued that “a victory for Sterling would mean she no longer carries the stigma of this federal criminal conviction for not removing a Bible verse. In a broader sense, it would mean RFRA protects service members to the same extent our courts have said it does for private citizens, churches, universities, and even businesses.”

“The inverse is also true,” he continued. “The court’s decision, at a practical level, means service members must now somehow prove to the government just how important their religious exercise is before they can invoke RFRA. It means the government can order someone not to pray, and unless they can prove that prayer is an important part of their religious belief, they risk being court-martialed.”

‘The Court Went Too Far’

In its decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that, contrary to Sterling’s claims, “the trial evidence does not even begin to establish how the orders to take down the signs interfered with any precept of her religion let alone forced her to choose between a practice or principle important to her faith and disciplinary action.”

Berry dismissed that position, telling The Stream that while “it is certainly reasonable to consider the context and circumstances surrounding the religious practice or exercise in question,” he believes “the court went too far here.”

“The majority opinion used Sterling’s relationship with her supervisor as an excuse to conclude that displaying a Bible verse isn’t really an important part of Sterling’s religious beliefs. In essence, the court substituted its judgment about how important the Bible verse is for Sterling’s own belief. That’s something courts are never supposed to do.”

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