Meet Monifa Sterling 

Lance Corporal (LCpl) Monifa Sterling is a Marine who was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. As a devout Christian, one of LCpl Sterling’s favorite Bible verses is “No weapon formed against you shall prosper” (Isaiah 54:17). In May 2013, she printed a personalized version of the scripture and taped it up in three places in her workspace – most prominently along the top of her computer monitor.

“I Don’t Like the Tone”

When Sterling’s supervisor, who also happened to be Sterling’s former drill instructor, saw the verse, she ordered Sterling to remove it. Sterling noted that other service members had personal items in their workspaces and asked why she couldn’t post the Bible verse. The supervisor said, “I don’t like the tone.” Sterling said she believed it was her First Amendment right to post Bible verses and declined to take them down. The next morning, Sterling found that the verses had been torn down and thrown in the trash. Rather than complaining, she simply reprinted the verses and put them back up. The next morning after that, she found the verses in the trash again. Soon after, Sterling was court-martialed.

The Court’s Ruling

At the trial, Sterling represented herself and invoked her First Amendment rights to religious expression, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to defend her posting of the verses, especially since no one in the unit ever complained about the verse. Unfortunately, the judge ruled against her. Sterling was convicted, given a bad conduct discharge, and reduced to the military’s lowest rank. Sterling appealed to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. Incredibly, the appeals court said RFRA did not apply because sharing Bible verses does not constitute religious exercise as a “part of a religious system of belief.” Since being discharged, Sterling has experienced great financial hardship. Due to her bad conduct discharge, she may not be able to receive benefits as a veteran.

What Happens Next

First Liberty Institute, along with volunteer attorney Paul Clement—a partner at Bancroft PLLC who has argued more than 80 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, including the recent Hobby Lobby victory—is serving as Sterling’s legal counsel. They appealed her case to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF), which is the highest military court in America, asking the Court to rule that the appellate court should have applied RFRA in LCpl Sterling’s case, protecting her right to post a Bible verse as a form of religious exercise. On October 28, the CAAF agreed to hear the case, and oral arguments were held on April 27, 2016.

On August 10, 2016, the CAAF issued an opinion ruling against Sterling.

“The CAAF’s decision is absolutely outrageous,” Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty Institute, says. “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. If they can court-martial a Marine over a Bible verse, what’s to stop them from punishing service members for reading the Bible, talking about their faith, or praying?”

“This is shameful, it’s wrong, and it sets a terrible precedent, jeopardizing the constitutional rights of every single man and woman in military service,” Shackelford continued. “This cannot be allowed to stand.”

First Liberty appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court on December 23, 2016. Read the petition. In early 2017, dozens of high-profile individuals, military and political groups filed seven amicus briefs with the Supreme Court at the cert stage, asking the Court to take the case. 

Why The Case Matters

First Liberty Director of Military Affairs Michael Berry said First Liberty has appealed this case to the U.S. Supreme Court for two reasons: justice and precedent.

“Ms. Sterling posted the Bible verse as an expression of her faith – an expression which should have been protected by RFRA,” Berry said. “Our Marines give up many freedoms when serving, but religious freedom is never one of them. The First Amendment, RFRA, and military code all protect service members’ right to express their faith freely.”

He added:

“Even though the CAAF failed to right the wrong that was inflicted on Ms. Sterling, we hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will take her case and uphold her right to religious freedom, setting a clear precedent for all service members and their future expressions of faith within our military.”

For Immediate Release: February 14, 2017

Contact: Kassie Dulin, kdulin@firstliberty.org
Cell: 214-542-4334, Direct: 972-941-4575 


Washington – In an unusual occurrence in Supreme Court practice, seven parties have filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court at the cert stage, asking the Court to take the case of Sterling v. United States.

“It’s rare for a Supreme Court case to receive a single amicus brief at this stage, let alone seven,” Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty, says. “We’re blown away to see such a broad range of parties of such high caliber weigh in on this case to support religious freedom.”

The amici, who each have a vested interest in the outcome of the case, encourage the court to review Sterling v. U.S. They include:

  • Simcha Goldman, an Orthodox Jew, who was the plaintiff in the historic Supreme Court case of Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), where he sought the right to wear a yarmulke while in uniform. His case, which was lost in a 5-4 decision, was the last military religious freedom case heard by the Supreme Court. Dr. Goldman urges the court to protect religious minorities in the military. (Read the Goldman brief)
  • Lieutenant Colonel Kamal S. Kalsi, U.S. Army Reserve, the first Sikh member of the Armed Forces given a religious accommodation to serve on active duty with a beard and turban, argues that the lower court’s ruling risks creating obstacles preventing people of faith from serving in the military. (Read the Kalsi brief)
  • Thirteen retired military generals argue that religious freedom is vital to the military and should be protected. (Read the generals’ brief)
  • Fourteen States’ Attorneys General say the lower court misapplied RFRA and argue that how the court interprets RFRA will directly impact service members who are citizens of their states. (Read the Attorneys General’s brief)
  • Religious Freedom Restoration Act expert Thomas Berg filed a brief on behalf of multiple religious and civil liberties organizations, including the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and many others. (Read the brief)
  • Foundation for Moral Law argues the historical significance and importance of religious freedom in the military. (Read the Foundation’s brief)
  • Thirty-six Members of Congress argue that the lower court’s interpretation of the Congress-authored RFRA is not consistent with the law’s text and purpose. They urge the court to review the Sterling (Read the Members’ brief)

The Sterling case began when a United States Marine, LCpl Monifa Sterling, was court-martialed for refusing an order to remove a Bible verse from her workspace. Since Sterling invoked the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in her defense, the question before the Supreme Court is how RFRA should be interpreted to protect individuals when the government burdens a person’s religious exercise. The outcome has the potential to determine the extent of religious freedom for all Americans, not just those serving in the military. (Read an explainer on the case)

First Liberty Institute, along with former solicitor general of the United States Paul Clement of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, represents LCpl Sterling in her appeal to the Supreme Court.

“Voices in the military, in the church, in religious minorities, and from across the nation are uniting to ask the Supreme Court to protect religious freedom,” Shackelford says. “We hope the Supreme Court will heed their requests and accept this historic religious freedom case.”

Read more at SterlingFacts.com

View the Supreme Court page on Sterling v. United States

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Kassie Dulin, Director of Legal Communications for First Liberty Institute. Email: kdulin@firstliberty.org, Direct: 972-941-9575, Cell: 214-542-4334.

To download this press release, click here.


Press Releases

First Liberty Press Release – 12/27/2016

First Liberty Press Release – 08/10/2016

First Liberty Press Release – 04/27/2016

Media Stories

Washington Post: Marine discharged after refusing to remove a Bible verse taped near her cubicle has her day in court

Fox News: Marine court-martialed for refusing to remove Bible verse

Military Times: http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2015/05/27/marine-monifa-sterling-bible-verse-court-case/28010365

Photos to Download.

(Photos credit of First Liberty Institute. May be republished.)