Monifa Sterling case: Court must protect, not punish, religious freedom in the Armed Forces

It began in 2013 when Marine Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling – a devout Christian – wanted to express her religious beliefs in the workplace where she was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

She quickly ran into trouble when she refused to obey an order from a superior to remove three signs at her work station bearing the words “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” – a modified quotation from Isaiah in the Bible.

As we reported nearly a year ago, Sterling’s superior officer saw the scripture verses, “did not like their tone,” and told Sterling to “remove that,” referring to the Bible verse as a profanity that we will not repeat. When Sterling refused, her superior officer removed the verses and threw them in the trash.

Her punishment: She was court-martialed and kicked out of the Marines for bad conduct.

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Last year, the United States Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stunning ruling that Sterling’s posting of the Scripture verses was not an exercise of religion.

Now, the military’s top appeals court – the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces – is considering the case. A five-judge panel on Wednesday heard arguments that essentially boiled down to this question: Was Sterling exercising her right of religious freedom or was she guilty of just plain insubordination?

A key issue facing the court will be the interpretation of a 1993 federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), requiring the government to seek the “least burdensome” and narrow means for any law that interferes with religious convictions.

The lower court said RFRA did not apply to Sterling’s case – a conclusion that was strongly challenged at Wednesday’s argument. Veteran attorney Paul Clement, a colleague of mine who as U.S. Solicitor General argued 75 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, presented arguments on behalf of Sterling.

Clement contended that RFRA does, in fact, apply to Sterling’s case, arguing the lower court got it wrong and that decision should be overturned. As he told the panel: “She got court-martialed for posting biblical verses.”

Paul Clement is exactly correct. That is what we argued in a critical amicus brief filed on Sterling’s behalf at the appeals court. We represent nearly 190,000 Americans as well as 36 members of Congress in our brief urging the appeals court to reverse the lower court’s decision.

To suggest that RFRA does not apply in this case is simply absurd. Congress has acted repeatedly to safeguard religious liberty, not only through RFRA but also in recent amendments to the National Defense Authorization Acts.

Our brief contends: “Congress’s intent that RFRA apply to the military is indisputable…. Military officials must accordingly show that any policy or regulation that burdens a service member’s religious freedom is ‘the least restrictive means of protecting a compelling governmental interest.’”

Our argument is straight forward: The Marines’ treatment of Lance Corporal Sterling flouts Congress’s clear intention to protect our nation’s service members’ religious liberty rights.

What happened to Lance Corporal Sterling should never happen to any of our service members.

It’s now up to the appeals court to correct this injustice. There’s no word on when a decision is expected in this widely watched case – but one thing is very clear: This is a critical opportunity for the nation’s top military appeals court to set a strong precedent by protecting the religious freedom of our military men and women who serve this nation.

Jay Sekulow is Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which focuses on constitutional law. He’s a New York Times bestselling author. Jay’s latest book “Undemocratic: Rogue, Reckless and Renegade: How the Government is Stealing Democracy One Agency at a Time” (Feb 2) is available now. He hosts “Jay Sekulow Live”– a daily radio show which is broadcast on more than 850 stations nationwide as well as Sirius/XM satellite radio. Follow him on Twitter @JaySekulow.

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