Former Marine's Religious Freedom Claims Rejected by Appeals Court

Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling. Photo by Wynona Benson Photography/Courtesy of Liberty Institute
Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling. Photo by Wynona Benson Photography/Courtesy of Liberty Institute

A former Marine court-martialed in part for refusing to remove a biblical phrase from her workspace lost her appeal on Wednesday, when a federal court concluded the orders from her superiors did not constitute a "substantial burden" on her First Amendment rights.

Monifa Sterling, who was a lance corporal stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was court-martialed for various offenses relating to separate incidents – including disrespecting a superior officer, disobeying lawful orders, and failing to report to an assigned duty.

But the part of the case that fueled her court challenge involved orders to remove a personalized version of the biblical phrase from Isiah 54:17: "No weapon formed against thee shall prosper."

Sterling taped the verses in three spots on her workspace. Court testimony said Sterling's superior repeatedly ordered her to remove the signs -- and when she refused, trashed them.

In its 4-1 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces turned away Sterling's case.

"We reject the argument that every interference with a religiously motivated act constitutes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion," the court said.

First Liberty Institute, the legal advocacy group representing Sterling, indicated it would appeal to the Supreme Court in coming weeks.

At issue is the extent a federal law on religious freedom protects members of the Armed Forces. The intersection of free speech on government property, especially within a military context, has made this case closely watched by a number of advocates on both sides of the debate.

Sterling was ultimately reduced in rank and given a bad-conduct discharge -- and later left the service.

Her lawyer admitted Sterling did not ask for permission to post or repost the verses. But her current legal team expressed disappointment at the ruling, calling it "shameful" and "wrong."

"This is absolutely outrageous," said Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute. "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."

Several judges hearing the case at a 45-minute oral argument in April seemed skeptical Sterling had done enough to assert her right to post the messages.

That came in out in the Wednesday ruling: "In this case, the record does not clearly address whether [Sterling's] conduct was based on a 'sincerely held religious belief' or motivated by animosity toward her chain of command."

In a dissent, Judge Kevin Ohlson said, "while the military's asserted interest in good order and discipline surely deserves great deference, it does not demand reflexive devotion."

The key dispute for the judges was interpreting a 1993 federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, requiring the government to seek the "least burdensome" and narrowly tailored means for any law that interferes with religious convictions.

The case is U.S. v. Sterling (15-0510/MC).

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