Members of Congress sign on to the American Center for Law and Justice’s friend-of-the-court brief in support of First Liberty Institute client, Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling, and her constitutional right to freely practice her faith . . .
Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling was court-martialed for posting
a Bible verse on her computer in her workspace at Camp LeJune, North Carolina.
Last week, the groundswell of support continued for First Liberty Institute client Lance Corporal (LCpl) Monifa Sterling when 43 Members of Congress, along with the American Center for Law and Justice, signed their names to a friend-of-the-court brief which asks the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) to grant the court-martialed Marine’s Petition for Grant of Review.
Leading the effort to support LCpl Sterling’s Petition were, among others, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) and Congressman John Fleming (R-LA).
“America is starting to wake up to the growing hostility shown toward service members who are being punished for exercising their religious beliefs,” says First Liberty Institute President & CEO Kelly Shackelford. “With this added support from 43 Members of Congress, we are hopeful CAAF will take notice and agree to accept the case. Our Marines give up many freedoms when they serve our country. The least we can do is protect their right to express their religious beliefs.”
TARGETING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN THE MILITARY
LCpl Sterling, a devout Christian, was criminally prosecuted by the Marine Corps in May 2015 for displaying a Bible verse in three places her personal workspace—after she declined taking them down when her supervisor ordered her to do so because she “didn’t like the tone.”
First Liberty Institute now represents her—along with volunteer attorney Paul Clement, a partner at Bancroft PLLC and former Solicitor General of the United States, who has argued over 75 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, including the important Hobby Lobby case. First Liberty Institute and Bancroft are appealing her case to CAAF, which is the highest military court with cases subject to review by the United States Supreme Court. In its brief, First Liberty Institute asks the court to hold that the appellate court should have applied the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in LCpl Sterling’s case, protecting her right to post a Bible verse as a form of religious expression.
“The government is clearly targeting religious freedom in the military,” says Mike Berry, First Liberty Institute Director of Military Affairs. “And nobody is immune. In the past couple of years, First Liberty Institute has defended service members in all four branches of the military, from officers to enlisted service members to chaplains. We have protected military members and vindicated their religious rights under the law. Yet, we must continue to do so, so every person of faith in the military feels safe again, regardless of rank, age, color, gender, or branch of service.”
BLOWING THE WHISTLE ON REDEFINING RELIGIOUS “FREE EXERCISE”
This week’s brief follows a friend-of-the-court brief filed by Oklahoma AttorneyGeneral Scott Pruitt (joined by four other states’ attorneys general) in support of LCpl Sterling.
Now, 43 Members of Congress have joined the growing coalition to support religious freedom in our military. They challenge the lower court’s finding that somehow Sterling’s use of a Bible verse was not “religious exercise” and thus was exempt from RFRA’s protection.
Congress was responsible for writing and passing RFRA, and these Members therefore know that Congress intended RFRA to apply in situations like LCpl Sterling’s—which the lower court completely missed. They also found the court missed the definitions prescribed by other U.S. Supreme Court cases
Their argument in the brief states in part:
“. . . those cases leave no doubt that Sterling’s conduct qualifies as religious exercise. As long as the conduct in question was religiously motivated, government actions that burdened the conduct would be subject to strict scrutiny . . . The NMCCA’s definition [of religious exercise] sets up military tribunals as theological experts parsing through ‘religious belief systems’ to ascertain whether a given practice can be deemed a ‘part’ of such religious system.”
“NO WEAPONS FORMED AGAINST ME SHALL PROSPER”
How could the display of one Bible verse lead to all of this?
When LCpl Sterling first chose to display her favorite Bible verse on her computer in her workspace at Camp Lejune, North Carolina, she simply thought she was falling in line with her fellow service members—who also had personal items in their workspaces. LCpl Sterling printed out Isaiah 54:17 (“No weapons formed against me shall prosper”) and taped it up in three places where she worked.
But when her supervisor—who also had been LCpl Sterling’s former drill instructor—saw the scripture, she ordered the service member to take it down. Citing her First Amendment right to post the Bible verse, LCpl Sterling declined. When she returned to her workspace the next day, LCpl Sterling found that the slips of paper with her favorite verse had been thrown into the trash. Instead of complaining, LCpl Sterling printed three copies and again taped Isaiah 54:17 to different areas of her workspace. Again, the next day they were found in the trash . . . and soon thereafter LCpl Sterling found herself court-martialed.
LOOKING TO CAAF TO PROTECT SERVICE MEMBERS’ RIGHT TO RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION
Displaying a small verse from the Bible is unquestionably and constitutionally protected religious exercise and expression of faith. But if LCpl Sterling’s court-martial is allowed to stand, it would set a dangerous precedent for all service members of America’s military who—acting within their First Amendment rights—wish to express their religious beliefs.
First Liberty Institute is grateful for the outcry of support from the 43 members of Congress and the Senate who are calling for RFRA to be applied, and is hopeful the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces will decide to take LCpl Sterling’s case for review.
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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.