Supreme Court Asked To Hear Groundbreaking Military Religious Freedom Case

Omar Sobhani/Reuters

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The Supreme Court has been asked to hear a case with significant ramifications for religious liberty in the armed forces.

The case concerns Marine LCpl Monifa Sterling, who refused an order to remove a personalized printed Bible verse from her workspace at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in 2013.

The verse, from Isaiah 54:17, read “No weapons formed against me shall prosper.” A superior officer felt the verse was confrontational and antagonistic and ordered her to take it down. She refused.

After the officer tore it down, Sterling reprinted the verse and reposted it in her workspace. She was then court-martialed for disobeying orders. Sterling argues the order was unlawful because it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law enacted to protect religious expression. The order, Sterling claims, substantially burdened her religious practice.

The case eventually reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the highest appeals court for members of the military. The court ruled against Sterling, finding that government only substantially burdens religious practice when it “force[s] the claimant to act contrary to her beliefs,” even if the government practice “offends religious sensibilities.” (RELATED: NYT Says GOP Stole Supreme Court Seat From Obama)

Sterling’s lawyers argue the appeals court should have adopted a broader definition of “substantial burden.”

“Ms. Sterling posted the Bible verse as an expression of her faith — an expression which should have been protected under RFRA,” said First Liberty Institute’s military affairs director Mike Berry. “We hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will take her case and uphold her right to religious freedom, setting a clear precedent for all service members and their future expressions of faith within our military.”

First Liberty, the religious freedom law practice, is representing Sterling along with former solicitor general Paul Clement of Kirkland and Ellis, an all-star of the Supreme Court bar.

The appeal could be something of a long shot. The high court rarely agrees to hear cases from the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

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