This week, First Liberty Institute and volunteer attorney Paul Clement asked the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF)—the highest military court whose cases are subject to review by the Supreme Court of the United States—to review the case of Lance Corporal (LCpl) Monifa Sterling, USMC. LCpl Sterling was convicted at a court-martial for putting a Bible verse on her computer when she was stationed at Camp Lejune, North Carolina.
After being criminally prosecuted by the United States Government, LCpl Sterling initially represented herself, then appealed her case to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. She again cited her First Amendment rights to religious expression, as well as her protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA is a vital law that has been used in court to protect religious liberty in various contexts.
But in this case, both the trial and the appellate court said RFRA did not apply because displaying a Bible verse does not constitute religious exercise. Sterling and her attorneys take issue with this opinion.
“If the government can order a Marine not to display a Bible verse, they could try and order her not to go to church on Sunday,” says First Liberty Institute Director of Military Affairs and Senior Counsel Mike Berry. “Restricting a Marine’s free exercise of religion is blatantly unconstitutional.”
First Liberty Institute, along with volunteer attorney Paul Clement—a partner at Bancroft PLLC who has argued over 75 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, including the recent Hobby Lobby victory—is now asking the court to rule that the appellate court should have applied RFRA in LCpl Sterling’s case, protecting her right to post Bible verses as a form of religious exercise.
A decision that RFRA should have been applied would set a major precedent that could be used to protect others in the military who desire to express their faith while serving their country.
NON-RELIGIOUS SPEECH IS OKAY . . . BUT RELIGIOUS IS NOT?
While stationed at Camp Lejune, LCpl Sterling, a devout Christian of Haitian descent, noticed that other service members had placed various personal items in their work spaces at the military base. So she decided to express herself as well in her workspace by displaying one of her favorite Bible verses.
LCpl Sterling printed out the words of Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon formed against you shall prosper.” But after taping it in three different places in her workspace, LCpl Sterling’s supervisor—who also happened to be her former drill instructor—ordered her to remove the Bible verse, cursing at her in the process. When LCpl Sterling asked why, her supervisor said, “I don’t like the tone.” The service member explained it was her First Amendment right to display the Bible verse and declined to take them down. Moreover, no other person in the unit ever complained about the verse.
The next day, LCpl Sterling discovered that her supervisor tore down the Bible verse and threw it in the trash. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Government charged LCpl Sterling with the crime of failing to obey a direct order because she did not remove the Bible verse.
“If a service member has a right to display a secular poster, put an atheist bumper sticker on their car, or get a Star of David tattoo,” explains Berry, “then Lance Corporal Sterling has the right to display a small Bible verse on her computer monitor.”
ATTACKS ON RELIGION TRIGGER VIGOROUS LEGAL DEFENSE
First Liberty Institute has defended service members in all four branches of the military—from officers to enlisted service members to chaplains who are black and white, male and female. “Nobody in the military is safe anymore,” adds Berry, “regardless of rank, age, color, gender, or branch of service. Whether you are a lowly private, or a commanding general, opponents of religious freedom simply don’t care. Clearly, people of faith are the targets.”
Other military members represented by First Liberty Institute include:
SERVICE MEMBERS CAN SECURE THEIR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Our service members give up many freedoms when serving, but religious freedom is never one of them. The First Amendment, RFRA, and military code protect service members’ right to express their faith freely, and their right to free religious expression should be protected.
For that reason, First Liberty Institute is hopeful that CAAF will decide to take LCpl Monifa Sterling’s case and correct the lower court ruling by saying RFRA does apply—and that displaying scripture, especially when no one complained about the small verse, is unquestionably and constitutionally protected religious exercise and expression of faith.
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About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.FirstLiberty.org.