August 12, 2016
By Lorra B.
A U.S. Marine’s appeal has been denied by a federal court.
Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling received several charges of disobeying orders in 2014 and was court’s-martialed. Having received a bad-conduct discharge and demoted to Private, she left the Marine Corps. Sterling received her discharge orders, in part, for refusing to remove a bible verse from her workstation.
In three areas of her workspace, Sterling posted the verse from Isaiah 54-17 “No weapons formed against me shall prosper.”
Sterling’s supervisor stated, “I don’t like the tone” and Sterling was ordered to take the verses down. According to WND, “When Sterling declined, her supervisor took them down at the end of the duty day. Sterling reprinted and re-posted the messages, but she found them in the trash the next morning. She was then court-martialed.”
The court of Appeals for the military seems to have determined what religious practice is and is not ‘important’ enough to be protected and president of First Liberty Institute, Kelly Shackelford, is not happy.
“This is absolutely outrageous. 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,” he said. “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?”
Although Shackelford believes the punishment Sterling received to be unconstitutional the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces determined otherwise.
“Appellant has failed to establish that the orders to remove the signs substantially burdened her religious beliefs. While Appellant seeks to cast the substantial burden as caused by the choice between obeying the orders to remove the signs and potentially facing a court-martial, this logic is flawed, as it presumes that taking down the signs constitutes a substantial burden—a burden imposing both secular and religious costs. This is the very legal question to be decided. We reject the argument that every interference with a religiously motivated act constitutes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion.
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, or cause her to “abandon one of the precepts of her religion. While Appellant testified that posting the signs was religiously motivated in part, she did not testify that she believed it is any tenet or practice of her faith to display signs at work. Nor does Appellant’s testimony indicate how complying with the order to remove the signs pressured her to either change or abandon her beliefs or forced her to act contrary to her religious beliefs. Although Appellant did not have to provide evidence that posting signs in her shared workspace was central to her belief system, she did have to provide evidence indicating an honest belief that “the practice [was] important to [her] free exercise of religion.” Contrary to Appellant’s assertions before this Court, 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.”
A former Air Force JAG officer, Daniel Briggs, stated, “No one in our military who goes to work every day to defend our freedoms should then be court-martialed for exercising those very freedoms.”
Briggs went on to say, ““This case is about Monifa, but it is also about every American who puts on the uniform in service to this country. The question is whether they will be allowed to exercise their faith in the military, or whether they will be denied the same constitutionally protected freedoms they have volunteered to defend and are willing to die for.”
This is an issue of just what extent religious freedom protections will be allowed members of the Armed Forces. It begs the question of whether or not military members, who are considered to be government property, have a constitutional right to religious freedom.
In 1993 the Religious Freedom Restoration Act became law. The act requires the government to seek the “least burdensome” means when dealing with religious beliefs.
The court, however, ruled, “In this case, the record does not clearly address whether [Sterling’s] conduct was based on a ‘sincerely held religious belief’ or motivated by animosity toward her chain of command.”
Judge Kevin Ohlson stated, “while the military’s asserted interest in good order and discipline surely deserves great deference, it does not demand reflexive devotion.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces denied Sterling’s case in a 4-1 opinion.
With the Armed Forces religious freedoms at risk, Sterling and First Liberty Institute plan on appealing this decision to the Supreme Court.
By Lorra B