Marine Court Martialed Over Bible Verse Has One More Chance

Monifa Sterling, First Liberty, Wynona Institute Photography,

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Casey Harper Contributor

The highest U.S. military court is considering the case of a Marine who was court-martialed for posting a Bible verse at her workstation, potentially sending military law into uncharted territory for religious expression.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces heard oral arguments Wednesday to decide if a Marine was discriminated against when she was court-martialed, reduced in rank and given a bad conduct discharge because she refused to take down a Bible verse at her work station. The lower court ruled against Sterling and her argument that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protects her.

“This is really the first time the highest court in the military has had to look at whether RFRA applies to the military,” Mike Berry, senior counsel and director of military affairs for the religious liberty group First Liberty, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. First Liberty is representing Sterling.

Monifa Sterling, who was a lance corporal stationed at Camp Lejune in North Carolina in May of 2013, kept a part of a Bible verse on her computer in three places to represent the trinity. The verse read “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” from the 54th chapter of Isaiah, an Old Testament book.

Sterling’s staff sergeant demanded she remove the verses, but she balked. The next day Sterling arrived at her station to find the verses ripped down, so she put them up again. This cycle repeated, and soon Sterling was court-martialed. She was convicted of disrespecting a superior commissioned officer, failing to go to an appointed place of duty, as well as disobeying a lawful order on four different specifications.

Sterling has had trouble finding a good job because of the blemish on her military record. She also does not receive any benefits usually due to veterans because of the bad conduct discharge. Now she’s challenging the decision in court, argueing that RFRA protects her from right to display the verse. RFRA requires that the government have a compelling interest to prevent someone from freely exercising their religion and they must restrict the right using the least restrictive means possible. Berry said the military is far from meeting that burden.

“The military is a structured society,” Chief Judge Charles Erdmann said at oral arguments. “How can we hold the military at fault when no request for an accommodation was made?”

The government has argued in court that because people walking by Sterling’s work station could read the verses, they were “signs” and thus the order to take them down was lawful.

“The government argued that displaying a Bible verse is not a religious exercise, and therefore it doesn’t fall under the protection of RFRA,” Berry told TheDCNF, saying that idea is ridiculous. “The government should not be the one making the decision whether displaying a Bible verse is religious expression or not.”

Berry said that while service members cede some rights when they enlist, they still retain their religious freedom.

“Certainly when service members join the military, they give up some of their freedom, but religious freedom is not one of those freedoms,” Berry told TheDCNF.

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