Discharged Marine Heads to Court over Workplace Bible Verse Posting

Former Lance Cpl. Monifa F. Sterling (Photo: The Becket Fund)
Former Lance Cpl. Monifa F. Sterling (Photo: The Becket Fund)

A former Marine discharged more than two years ago for disobeying orders, including that she not post Bible verses at her workstation, will go before the military's highest court next week to argue her religious rights were violated.

In challenging the ruling of her court-martial judge, former Lance Cpl. Monifa F. Sterling has garnered the support of a wide range of religious organizations and dozens of members of Congress, who believe the Marine Corps violated her rights under the Military Religious Restoration Act.

Attorney Michael Berry, a former Marine Judge Advocate General and now director of military affairs for the First Liberty Institute, which is representing Sterling, said last fall that the case "has the potential to affect the religious freedom of millions of Americans who serve in our armed forces."

In an interview with McClatchy News Service in October, Berry aid the appeals court's decision to hear the case marked a victory for Sterling's many advocates. Among her backers are more than 40 members of Congress who have weighed in on the case with a friend of the court brief.

A similar filing was made by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and represented various Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders, including endorsing agencies for military chaplains.

But while the court will hear Sterling's argument that the military violated her rights by forcing her to remove Bible verses from her workplace, it will not address other charges for which she was found guilty at court-martial. These include refusing to wear the uniform ordered by her superior and refusing to report for duty.

"The other charges aren't being challenged in this appeal. The only issue before the court is whether the military violated Lance Corporal Sterling's right to religious freedom by discriminatorily forcing her to remove her scripture verses from her workspace," Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for The Becket Fund, told Military.com.

Blomberg said the original court ruled against the former Marine's religious rights argument because it "didn't think that posting scripture verses was a sufficiently well-known religious belief to be protected, and because it believed that religious speech is inherently 'divisive' and may be pre-emptively censored.

"Both rulings are unusual, harmful, and need to be reversed," Blomberg said.

The court found that in May 2013, Sterling posted the Bible quote, "No weapon formed against me shall prosper," above her computer monitor, on the computer tower and on her in-box. After she was told to take them down and refused, a noncommissioned officer, identified in court papers as Staff Sgt. Alexander, removed them. Sterling reposted the verse the next day and Alexander again removed them.

The court, in its decision to punish Sterling with a bad conduct discharge, also noted that her defense attorney "essentially argued for a punitive discharge" on the grounds she wanted out of the Corps quickly.

The defense attorney's sentencing comments included statements that "Sterling ...  is recently married. And she has also said, she is not long for the Marine Corps one way or the other. And so whatever punishment you give her, I would ask that it be a punishment that quickly brings [LCpl] Sterling's association with her command and the Marine Corps to an end."

Attorney Bradley Girard of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said Sterling's case has nothing to do with religious liberty in the military. Also, Sterling never told her staff sergeant the verse was from the Bible and that she was posting it for religious reasons, AU states in its own court filing on the case.

"She didn't even mention it was religious until her trial, which was six months later," Girard said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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