Court-Martialed U.S. Marine Has Her Day in Court

No weapon formed against you shall prosper,
And every tongue which rises against you in judgment
You shall condemn.
—Isaiah 54:17

Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling took those words to heart. And on April 27, a military court will hear opening arguments in a case to determine whether Corporal Sterling, by displaying those words in her office, had violated a lawful order—or whether she was simply exercising her religious liberty rights, the same rights enjoyed by every American.

In May 2013, Corporal Sterling was assigned to a desk job at Camp Lajeune, in North Carolina. There, it was her responsibility to handle complaints from other Marines who were experiencing problems with their Common Access Cards, the personalized “smart” cards which enabled physical access to buildings and controlled spaces, and to computer networks and systems within the Department of Defense.

When the cards didn't work properly, short-tempered Marines often directed their anger toward Corporal Sterling. As a reminder to herself to remain patient when confronted by an angry Marine, Sterling, a non-denominational Christian, printed a variant of that quote:

“No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”

She pasted three copies of the quote in 28-point type in her cubicle: on her computer's tower, on her monitor, and on her desk. The three copies, she said, represented the three Persons in the Holy Trinity.

But Sterling's staff sergeant didn't like the Scripture passages, and ordered their removal. She considered such an expression of religiosity an affront to “good order and discipline.” When Corporal Sterling refused to take the verses down, the staff sergeant tore them down and threw them on the floor.

The next day, Sterling put the verses back up. And again, the staff sergeant tore them down.

It didn't end well. According to a report in the Military Times, Sterling was charged with violation of a lawful order and that, along with other low-level misconduct, led to her court-martial conviction and a sentence of reduction in rank from lance corporal to private (E-1) and a bad-conduct discharge.

Her case was appealed to the Navy-Marine Corps appeals court; but that court also found her guilty. Noting that the desk where she taped the Bible passages was used and was visible to other Marines, the appeals court concluded in February 2015 that Sterling's posting of religious verses could be interpreted as combative, and said that “The risk that such exposure could impact the morale or discipline of the command is not slight.”

Now, Sterling's case is being appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF), the highest military court, whose cases are subject to review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is being handled by the First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty advocacy group.

Sterling has found support, as well, from Paul D. Clement, former solicitor general of the United States, who is now a professor of law at Georgetown University. Clement argues that Corporal Sterling should have been permitted to keep the religious signs in her Marine Corps office under provisions in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law passed in 1993 which granted broad freedom of religious expression. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was applied successfully in the case of Hobby Lobby, which objected to the provision of the Affordable Care Act which required companies to provide contraceptives to their employees, regardless of the owners' religious beliefs. Clement represented Hobby Lobby in that key case.

But Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has a different view. Weinstein, whose organization advocates to keep religion out of the military, thinks the Marines handled Sterling's case correctly the first time. “We are a secular nation,” Weinstein said, “and particularly so in the U.S. Military.” Weinstein looked to a 1974 cas e which held that the military is a “specialized society from civilian society” where stricter guidelines on free speech are permitted.

Michael Berry, the Liberty Institute attorney handling the case, believes that Sterling's Constitutional rights were violated. Berry said, "You've got a military court saying [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] doesn't apply in this case because we don't think this was a religious exercise. But courts are not allowed to say whether or not someone's beliefs a re religious or not."

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time on April 27. The case will determine whether a member of the armed forces can expect to enjoy the same freedoms enjoyed by other citizens, or whether an enlisted person is not entitled to religious freedom—the freedom that he or she, by serving in the military, hoped to protect for all Americans.