On Wednesday, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces—the highest military court in America—will hear oral arguments in a case that will determine if religious freedoms exist for members of the military.
At the heart of the case is U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling, who was court-martialed for refusing to take down a Bible verse she had posted in her workplace at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. She also re-posted the verses after her supervisor threw them in the trash.
As a devout Christian, one of Sterling's favorite Bible verses is "No weapon formed against you shall prosper" (Isaiah 54:17). In May 2013, she printed a personalized version of the Scripture and taped it up in three places in her workspace—most prominently along the top of her computer monitor.
When Sterling's supervisor—who also happened to be Sterling's former drill instructor—saw the verse, she ordered Sterling to remove it. Sterling noted that other service members had personal items in their workspaces and asked why she couldn't post the Bible verse. The supervisor chastised her for her "tone."
Sterling said she believed it was her First Amendment right to post Bible verses and declined to take them down. The next morning, she found the verses had been torn down and thrown in the trash.
Rather than complaining, she simply reprinted the verses and put them back up. The next morning after that, she found the verses in the trash again. Soon after, Sterling was court-martialed.
At court-martial, Sterling represented herself and invoked her First Amendment rights to religious expression, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to defend her posting of the verses, especially since no one in the unit ever complained about the verse. The judge, however, ruled against her.
She received a reduction in rank to Private, the lowest rank in the Marine Corps, as well as a bad-conduct discharge. She appealed her court-martial to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, which also ruled against her because, as the court determined, sharing Bible verses does not constitute religious exercise as a "part of a religious system of belief."
Since being discharged, Sterling has experienced enormous financial hardship. And, due to her bad-conduct discharge, she isn't eligible to receive veteran's benefits.
First Liberty Institute stepped in last year and filed a petition with the CAAF, which agreed to hear the case in October. Paul Clement, a former Solicitor General of the United States who has argued more than 75 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, will argue her court-martial should be thrown out because her religious liberty is protected by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
First Liberty Director of Military Affairs Michael Berry said this case is important for two reasons: justice and precedent.
"Ms. Sterling posted the Bible verse as an expression of her faith—an expression which should have been protected by RFRA," he said. "By failing to protect Ms. Sterling's religious freedom, an injustice has been done. We hope the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces will take this opportunity to right the wrong that has been inflicted on Ms. Sterling and set a clear precedent that our service members have a right to religious freedom."
Clement—a partner at Bancroft PLLC who argued the recent Hobby Lobby victory—provides the CAAF with the opportunity to reaffirm that religious freedom doesn't end when one puts on the uniform and answers his or her nation's call to serve.
"Religious freedom is such an important issue for our military," he said. "We hope the court will clarify this issue and confirm that RFRA protects our troops."
Several national leaders, including nine retired military generals and 43 members of Congress, have filed amicus briefs in support of Sterling's case. The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty and a diverse coalition of religious leaders—including imams, Sihks, Catholics, Mormons, and Baptists—have also weighed in to support the Marine's religious liberty.
"Our Marines give up many freedoms when serving, but religious freedom is never one of them," Berry added. "The First Amendment, RFRA and military code all protect service members' right to express their faith freely. We are grateful the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces accepted this case and we are hopeful of a favorable result for Lance Cpl. Sterling, and the religious freedom of all our service members."
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