Help for a Marine punished for her religious expression is coming from all directions—potentially leading to a major case in the nation’s highest military court.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt filed a friend-of-the-court brief (amicus brief) earlier this month in support of Lance Corporal (LCpl) Monifa Sterling, who was court-martialed in May for displaying a Bible verse in her personal workspace.
But the help doesn’t stop there. While LCpl Sterling waits to hear if the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) will hear her case, more notable names are joining the battle for her religious freedom—including the Attorneys General of four other states who added a letter of support to Pruitt’s friend-of-the-court brief.
WHY THIS FRIEND-OF-THE-COURT BRIEF MATTERS
Friend-of-the-court briefs add strength and legitimacy to cases, offering a third-person perspective that can be influential in guiding the court’s decision. Oklahoma’s brief makes the important argument that denying LCpl Sterling’s right to free exercise of religion will detrimentally inhibit the freedom of military members and American citizens in the future—something affecting every state in the nation, and of special concern to the top law officers of those states.
“This is a rare and unprecedented event. All of the military legal experts I’ve consulted tell me they’ve never seen a friend-of-the-court brief like this before. And it is extremely important to have support from respected legal experts—like State Attorneys General—in cases like this one,” says First Liberty Institute Director of Military Affairs and Senior Counsel Mike Berry. “I am confident that the friend-of-the-court brief filed by the State of Oklahoma will go a long way in positively influencing the decision of the court to hear LCpl Sterling’s case.”
Oklahoma isn’t alone in its defense of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and LCpl Sterling’s religious freedom—four other state Attorneys General added their names to the amicus curiae brief through a motion to attach a letter of support. They include Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt of Nevada, Attorney General Mark Brnovich of Arizona, Attorney General Alan Wilson of South Carolina, and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey West Virginia.
Their letter of support states: “As our respective States’ chief legal officers who have sworn an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution, we are equally mindful of the fundamental importance of the rights guaranteed therein—including religious exercise, which Congress has further protected through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).” The addition of these State Attorneys General sends a clear message that religious freedom in the military is an issue of national concern.
PROTECTING A SERVICE MEMBER’S RIGHT TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
The chain of events that triggered this legal groundswell of support began with seven words printed on three small pieces of paper.
While stationed at Camp Lejune, LCpl Sterling, a devout Christian of Haitian descent, noticed that other service members 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 the paraphrased words of Isaiah 54:17: “No weapons formed against me 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 brave Marine explained it is 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 injury to insult, 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, although the law specifically does not require her to obey an unlawful order.
“If a service member has a right to place a Bible on their desk, display a secular poster or put a bumper sticker on their car,” explains Berry, “then LCpl Sterling has the right to display a small Bible verse on her computer monitor.”
A CRUCIAL DEFENSE OF THE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACT
Upon hearing LCpl Sterling’s case, both the trial and the appellate court said RFRA did not apply because displaying a Bible verse does not constitute religious exercise. First Liberty Institute refutes that claim, arguing that such interpretation of RFRA unconstitutionally limits the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Oklahoma’s friend-of-the-court brief agrees:
“Its failure to recognize the breath of protection offered by RFRA and similar state statutes jeopardizes the religious protections intended by Congress. Such precedent can have severe consequences to people of faith in the Marines, including those that are citizens of Oklahoma.”
Oklahoma’s brief further explains why the courts’ previous narrow interpretation of RFRA is problematic:
In closing, Oklahoma’s brief cautions that, should the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces refuse to review the case, “members of the Marines Corps, including many Oklahoma citizens, will be deprived of the religious freedom protections intended by Congress in RFRA.”
NOT ALONE IN THE BATTLE
It is unconstitutional for the government to pick and choose what constitutes an expression of faith. Thankfully, five states have recognized that fact and have chosen to aid in supporting the rights of LCpl Sterling and all military men and women.
Learn more about service members’ right to freely express their faith according to The First Amendment, RFRA, and military code.
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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.