SUPREME RARITY: U.S. Supreme Court Receives Unusual Number of Briefs in Support of Marine ‘Bible Verse’ Case

Several high-profile individuals, military and advocacy groups took a stand for former U.S. Marine Monifa Sterling this week by submitting “friend-of-the-court briefs” asking the Supreme Court to take its first military religious freedom case in 30 years.

February 17, 2017

Religious freedom for military members could be further protected — or severely inhibited — in the coming months, and it all depends on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In December, First Liberty Institute asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case of Monifa Sterling, a U.S. Marine who was convicted at a court martial for refusing an order to remove a Bible verse from her personal workspace.

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.)

Now, several high-profile individuals, military and advocacy groups are standing with Sterling and First Liberty by submitting “friend-of-the-court” briefs 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 a broad range of parties of such high caliber weigh in on this case to support religious freedom.”


The briefs were submitted by those who have a vested interest in the outcome of the case. They include:

  • Simcha Goldman, an Orthodox Jew, who was the plaintiff in the historic Supreme Court case of Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), in which he sought the right to wear a yarmulke while in uniform. Dr. Goldman lost his case in a 5-4 decision at a time when the Court had a very different set of justices. The Goldman case was the last military religious freedom case heard by the Supreme Court. It remains a high-profile case that, despite the loss, triggered actions that changed military policy. In his brief, 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 good order, discipline, and military readiness, 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 Professor 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)


Because 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.

Despite the fact that Sterling’s case involves the expression of her faith, her rights under RFRA have been repeatedly denied, from her initial court martial all the way up to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF).

So what’s the problem? At the end of the day, won’t this case just affect one Marine? While it might seem that way, the stakes are much higher.

If the CAAF’s ruling is allowed to stand, it will impact the rights of every other active military member. The CAAF’s ruling will become precedent, limiting the ability of military members to express their religious beliefs — even though it should be their right under the First Amendment and RFRA.

And it won’t stop there.

According to First Liberty President Kelly Shackelford, such a strong ruling could even affect religious freedom rights for civilians in the future.


“Sterling’s case is extremely important to the future of religious freedom, as the number and quality of these amicus briefs reveal,” Shackelford said. “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. We hope the Supreme Court will heed their requests and accept this historic religious freedom 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.


View the Supreme Court page on Sterling v. United States

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