In a decision likely to influence how the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) applies to military service members, the military’s highest court upheld the conviction of a U.S. Marine court-martialed for disobeying an order to remove three Bible passages she posted around her workplace.
In an opinion released on Aug. 10, the five civilian judges on the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) decided 4-to-1 to uphold a lower court ruling against Lance Cpl. Monifa J. Sterling. The lower court found Sterling failed to inform her superiors that the posting of the signs was “religiously motivated” and failed “to establish that the orders to remove the signs constituted a substantial burden on her exercise of religion” under RFRA. The signs, a personalization of Isaiah 54:17, read, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”
The CAAF, which heard oral arguments in April, agreed to review the case on the basis of two key questions. First, was Sterling’s conduct in displaying the signs in her shared workplace an exercise of religion as defined under RFRA? Second, did her superior non-commissioned officer have a valid military purpose in ordering her to remove the signs?
In the majority opinion, the judges noted that because Sterling did not indicate until during her trial that the signs had any religious significance to her, the words on the signs could have been interpreted as being “combative in tone.” They concluded the order to remove the signs was valid and did not place a “substantial burden” on her exercise of religion.
But in a dissenting opinion, Judge Kevin A. Ohlson argued that, in its decision, the CAAF went far beyond what was necessary to decide Sterling’s case and imposed “a legal framework that unnecessarily curtails the religious freedom of our nation’s service members.”
Ohlson argued the lower court—the Navy Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA)—incorrectly applied RFRA in Sterling’s case by not adequately determining whether her conduct “was sincerely founded on her religious beliefs.” In other words, the NMCCA failed to establish “whether LCpl Sterling was engaged in ‘religious exercise’—the very first prong of RFRA.” In Ohlson’s opinion, the CAAF should have remanded the case back to the NMCCA.
Ohlson concluded “the majority’s analysis of the underlying legal issue raises the prospect that other service members in the future may be subjected to conviction at court-martial for merely engaging in religious exercise that is entitled to protection under [RFRA].”
“This is absolutely outrageous,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, which represents Sterling. “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, taking about their faith, or praying?”
In a statement, Shackelford noted that the decision “sets a terrible precedent” and will “jeopardiz[e] the constitutional rights of every single man and woman in military service.”
First Liberty plans to appeal the case directly to the Supreme Court.
— by Michael Cochrane