A United States appeals court has ruled against a former Marine who was court-martialed and discharged in part for refusing to remove cutouts of a biblical phrase from her work station.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington ruled Wednesday, 4-1, to uphold the bad conduct discharge of Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling, deciding that there was no "substantial burden" placed on her religious freedom rights when her supervising officer at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina demanded that she remove slips of paper taped to her desk that read "No weapon formed against me shall prosper."
Although the saying is a paraphrase of Isaiah 54:17, the court majority believes that Sterling, who had a contentious relationship with her staff sergeant and felt as though she was being bullied, posted the verse in order to be "combative."
"Appellant did not inform the person who ordered her to remove the signs that they had had any religious significance to Appellant, the words in context could easily be seen as combative in tone, and the record reflects that their religious connotation was neither revealed nor raised until mid-trial," the court's majority opinion states.
Sterling's lawyer, First Liberty Institute senior counsel Michael Berry, told The Christian Post that the Supreme Court ruled in Muhammad Ali's 1971 case, Clay v. United States, that the courts have no business interpreting the authenticity of one's religious practices.
"The Supreme Court unanimously said that 'we can't question how sincere his beliefs are. That is just inappropriate for a court to do,'" Berry said. "That is what the court is doing here, basically what sports writers were trying to do to Muhammad Ali."
Sterling's troubles date back to May 2013, when she refused to comply with her staff sergeant's request that she remove the biblical message from her work station, which she shared with other Marines. Sterling refused her commanding officer's order. When Sterling later returned to her desk, she saw that her cutouts had been removed.
Along with other charges that Sterling did not comply with officer demands, Sterling was court-martialed. In total, she was charged with one specification of failing to go to her appointed place of duty, one specification of disrespect toward a superior commissioned officer, and four specifications of disobeying the lawful order of a noncommissioned officer.
In February of 2014, she represented herself at her court martial trial and was found guilty. She later received the help of the First Liberty Institute, a legal firm devoted to restoring religious liberty in America. Along with her legal team, she appealed the charges relating to her refusal to remove the bible verse to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. However, that court also ruled against her.
Berry accuses the court of ignoring Sterling's testimony about how she was being bullied and posted the biblical reference as a source of comfort.
"She tried to talk about that during her trial but the judge shut her down," Berry explained. "That is just a fundamental failure to understand what a Bible verse can do for somebody who is going through a tough time."
The majority opinion also states that Sterling did not previously ask to have a religious accommodation allowing her to post scripture at her work station. However, Judge Kevin Ohlson wrote in dissent that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not "empower judges to require a believer to ask of the government, 'Mother, may I?' before engaging in sincere religious conduct."
The majority asserts that Sterling's case is not one that deals with "patently religious" behavior, such as the need for Muslim women to wear a hijab or for Sikh men to grow a beard.
"That is a wrong and dangerously wrong argument and position for the court to take," Berry told CP. "What that is doing is putting courts and judges in the position to start determining how important somebody's religious practice is to their faith. Of course, faith and religion is very personal to people in this country and not something that courts should be dictating."
Berry told CP that Sterling plans on appealing the court's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued that the courts are sending the wrong message that although RFRA applies to citizens, churches, and religious organizations, military service members have to "prove just how sincere and important their religious exercise is."
"That is just outrageous. We have 1.3 million people on active duty in the military. The latest survey shows that approximately 75 percent identify as religious in some form or fashion," Berry said. "That's over 750,000 people who are basically being told that if you want protection of this federal law you are going to have to prove how important your religion is to you."
As a result of the convictions, Berry said that Sterling is having a hard time finding decent employment.
"The fact that you have a federal conviction on your record is stigmatizing. It has already had an effect on her," he explained. "It has been very difficult for her to find any kind of meaningful employment above minimum wage. This is now hanging over her head. It can affect her veterans benefits that she might be eligible for. The consequences are really going to carry on for decades beyond the decision itself. That is something too that people often lose sight of."