The highest U.S. military court will hear the case of a Marine who says her religious freedom was compromised when she was ordered to remove a Bible verse from her work station. In May 2013, Lance Corporal (LCpl) Monifa Sterling refused to follow a superior’s order to remove a Bible verse from her workspace. In ruling on the case earlier this year, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals sided against Sterling, saying that significant damage could be caused by forcing military employees to work in the presence of a religious quotation. “The implication is clear — the junior Marine sharing the desk and the other Marines coming to the desk for assistance would be exposed to biblical quotations in the military workplace,” the court said in its ruling on the case. “It is not hard to imagine the divisive impact to good order and discipline that may result when a service member is compelled to work at a government desk festooned with religious quotations, especially if that service member does not share that religion.” “The risk that such exposure could impact the morale or discipline of the command is not slight,” the court continued. “Maintaining discipline and morale in the military work center could very well require that the work center remain relatively free of divisive or contentious issues such as personal beliefs, religion, politics, etc., and a command may act preemptively to prevent this detrimental effect.” The case centers on an incident two years ago, in which Sterling was stationed at Camp Lejune in North Carolina. A devout Christian, she chose to place at her workstation three slips of paper with the words, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper,” a modification of the Bible verse Isaiah 54:17. Sterling taped the Bible verse in three different places to emulate the Holy Trinity, according to her lawyers. When her immediate supervisor — Staff Sergeant Alexander — saw the verses, she ordered Sterling to remove them, saying that she did not like the tone. Sterling refused, according to her lawyers, citing First Amendment freedoms and the fact that others in her unit were allowed to have personal items in their workstations. The following day, Sterling found the Bible verses in the garbage. She then reprinted and posted the verses, but found them in the trash again the next day. On February 1, 2014, Sterling was court-martialed. “Marines fight for the freedom of all Americans and make many sacrifices to do so,” Liberty Institute senior counsel and director of military affairs Michael Berry told CNA. “They should not be denied their most fundamental freedom — religious freedom — which is guaranteed to all.” Sterling argued before a trial court that her religious expression is protected by her First Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). She also said that none of her peers ever complained about the Bible verses. “In any event, neither SSgt Alexander nor any other witness testified that any Marine (including the Marine who purportedly shared LCpl Sterling’s desk) was ever distracted, annoyed, or agitated by — or even saw — the quotations,” the brief explains. Both the initial trial court and the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals ruled against Sterling. “Indeed, the appellant never told her SSgt that the signs had a religious connotation and never requested any religious accommodation to enable her to display the signs,” the appeals court said in its decision. “Instead, the record supports the conclusion that the appellant was simply placing what she believed to be personal reminders that those she considered adversaries could not harm her. Such action does not trigger the RFRA.” “While her explanation at trial may invoke religion, there is no evidence that posting signs at her workstation was an ‘exercise’ of that religion in the sense that such action was ‘part of a system of religious belief,’” the court ruled. Sterling’s attorney disagrees. “Cpl. Sterling made it clear to her supervisor that these verses are part of her religious beliefs. There is no doubt that she was targeted for her faith,” said Berry, who is also co-counsel in the case, United States v. Sterling. “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it cannot determine what is or is not central to a person’s beliefs,” he said. “Centrality of belief is not an appropriate test. In Cpl. Sterling’s case, she made it clear that sharing Bible verses was part of her religious beliefs.” The case will now go to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces — the highest military court in America. Oral arguments for Sterling’s appeal will likely be heard in the spring. “The first and foremost issue for the court to determine is if RFRA applies to the military,” said Berry. “The outcome will send a clear message to people serving in the military on whether their religious freedom will be protected by the military court system.” “RFRA guarantees analysis and procedure — a legal review that constitutional rights are protected. But the military neglected to do this. Staff Sergeant Alexander should have evaluated the facts and circumstances and asked Cpl. Sterling why it was important for her to post the Bible verses. This never happened.” Sterling is currently on appellate leave, whereby she is prohibited from performing military duties. Since receiving a Bad Conduct Discharge, she has been unemployed and is struggling to find work. The charge also prevents her from receiving government funds or veterans benefits. “Cpl. Sterling believes her religious beliefs should not be taken away simply because someone orders her to do so,” said Berry. “We are grateful that the court granted review of this case and are hopeful of a favorable ruling. Cpl. Sterling deserves that, as do all military men and women who want to practice their faith.”
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