An appeal by a U.S. Marine, who was court-martialed in part for refusing to remove a printout from her workstation of a paraphrased bible verse, has been denied by a federal court.
Monifa Sterling, a Lance Corporal stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, at the time, was court-martialed in 2014 on several charges relating to disobeying orders. As a result, she was demoted to Private, received a bad-conduct discharge (which may preclude eligibility for veterans benefits), and subsequently left the Marine Corps.
Her appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (the military’s highest court) focused solely on the issue of religious liberty under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“But the part of the case that fueled her court challenge involved orders to remove a personalized version of the biblical phrase from Isiah 54:17: ‘No weapon formed against thee shall prosper,'” Fox News reported.
In general, the law requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices.
First Liberty Institute, an organization that specializes in religious freedom cases, represented the ex-Marine and plans to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to the court record in U.S. v. Sterling, Monifa Sterling printed out and taped the verse in question to her computer tower, above her monitor, and above her desk mailbox. On two occasions, she allegedly refused a sergeant’s order to remove the signs from her cubicle.
“Sterling argued during her trial that she was a Christian, and that she had posted the signs because co-workers were picking on her,” the Associated Press detailed.
In a 4-1 decision, released yesterday following an April hearing, the CAAF ruled that the orders were lawful.
“In this case, Appellant did not present any testimony that the signs were important to her exercise of religion, or that removing the signs would either prevent her ‘from engaging in conduct [her] religion requires,'” the majority opinion explained.
Citing the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals record in the case, the appellate panel noted that “[Sterling] did not inform the person who ordered her to remove the signs that they had had any religious significance to [her], 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.”
“The key dispute for the judges was interpreting a 1993 federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, requiring the government to seek the ‘least burdensome’ and narrowly tailored means for any law that interferes with religious convictions,” Fox News added.
In a press release, Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, described the court ruling as outrageous and setting a terrible precedent.
“A few judges decided they could strip a Marine of her constitutional rights just because they didn’t think her beliefs were important enough to be protected. If they can court-martial a Marine over a Bible verse, what’s to stop them from punishing service members for reading the Bible, talking about their faith, or praying?”
In January, 2016, the Huffington Post claimed that various separate incidents over five months involving alleged insubordination led to the court-martial and that the biblical verse dispute was only a minor element of the legal case.
“Of all the charges that Sterling was found guilty of at her court-martial, the charge charge of disobeying the order to remove the signs was not the most serous of the brought against her…[and] received the least amount of attention at the court-martial.”
Monifa Sterling, according to the Huff Post article, was “a bad Marine who was court-martialed for committing a number of violations of military regulations” rather than a persecuted Christian.
[Photo by Allen Breed/AP Images]