In April, First Liberty made history, arguing along side a former U.S. Solicitor General in one of the few religious freedom cases to ever grace the highest court for the United States military.
The case was United States v. Sterling, in which U.S. Marine LCpl Monifa Sterling was court-martialed for refusing to remove Bible verses she’d posted around her personal workspace.
First Liberty and Paul Clement—who has argued over 80 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court—asked the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) to affirm that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) applies to military members as it does to other U.S. citizens. When Sterling initially represented herself at her court martial, she was denied RFRA protection—something her attorneys sought to rectify.
But the CAAF rejected that request last Wednesday, August 10, ruling that Sterling’s commander was justified in ordering Sterling to remove her personal expressions of her religious faith.
First Liberty President and CEO Kelly Shackelford said this is a denial of Sterling’s constitutional religious freedom. Specifically, he called the decision “absolutely outrageous.”
“The court’s majority decided it could strip a Marine of her constitutional rights just because it didn’t think her beliefs were important enough to be protected,” Shackelford said. “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?”
According to First Liberty’s Director of Military Affairs Mike Berry, that’s the issue, indeed.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
The two focus points in Sterling’s case, Berry says, are justice and precedent. Justice for Sterling, who was denied the religious freedom and federal protection of that freedom that should apply to all citizens—and precedent for all other military members, no matter their faith.
“Our Marines give up many freedoms when serving, but religious freedom is never one of them,” Berry said. “The First Amendment, RFRA, and military code all protect service members’ right to express their faith freely.”
In April, just after First Liberty’s oral arguments before the CAAF, Berry stated:
“A favorable 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. An unfavorable decision, however, could seriously endanger the religious liberty rights of our country’s military men and women.”
It’s clear—last week’s decision was unfavorable. So what about the religious liberty rights of America’s military men and women? Are they seriously endangered, as Berry warned they would be? According to Shackelford, the answer is yes.
“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 said after the decision was announced.
But he also indicated that the fight isn’t over:
“We plan to appeal this to the Supreme Court.”
NEXT STOP: SUPREME COURT
According to Shackelford and Berry, an unfavorable decision was never out of the realm of possibility. And a victory at the highest court not just of the military—but of the land—could extend the resulting positive precedent even further.
Even at the time of the CAAF arguments, Shackelford said that the application of RFRA to military members’ rights could strengthen RFRA rights for all Americans. Now that First Liberty is appealing the case to the United States Supreme Court, that’s even truer.
“It’s more important than ever for Americans to pay attention to Sterling’s case now,” Shackelford said, “for the sake of military members of faith, and for the sake of every American.”
News of the CAAF’s ruling against Sterling captured extensive media coverage last week, following coverage surrounding the oral arguments in April. Now, Americans around the nation will await news of First Liberty’s appeal at the Supreme Court.
Appealing any case to the Supreme Court is a challenge in itself, Berry said, with a small percentage of cases actually being accepted. However, he believes there is a good chance for Sterling’s case to be heard.
“There is no way to guarantee that the Supreme Court will hear any case, since so many appeals are submitted every year,” he said. “But Ms. Sterling’s case is vitally important and will ultimately impact the most important right any American has—religious freedom.”
“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.”
To read more about LCpl Sterling’s case and stay up-to-date on the legal proceedings, visit SterlingFacts.com.
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