Military Court Claims Power To Decide “Importance” of Religion

Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling
Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling

In a stunning ruling that likely will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, a military court has decided it can determine whether or not a certain religious practice is “important” enough to be protected.

“This is absolutely outrageous,” said Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute, after the decision in the case against a Marine who posted a Bible verse at her work station.

“A few judges decided they could strip a Marine of her constitutional rights just because they didn’t think her beliefs were important enough to be protected,” he 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?”

At the end of 2015, when a lower military court delivered the judgment against Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling, who, at three places in her work space, posted a phrase from Isaiah 54:17, “No weapons formed against me shall prosper.”

According to the brief, her supervisor said, “I don’t like the tone” and told her to remove the verses.

“When Sterling declined, her supervisor took them down at the end of the duty day. Sterling reprinted and re-posted the messages, but she found them in the trash the next morning. She was then court-martialed,” according to the complaint.

“No one in our military who goes to work every day to defend our freedoms should then be court-martialed for exercising those very freedoms,” said Daniel Briggs, a former Air Force JAG officer now with the Alliance Defending Freedom, at the time.

“This case is about Monifa, but it is also about every American who puts on the uniform in service to this country. The question is whether they will be allowed to exercise their faith in the military, or whether they will be denied the same constitutionally protected freedoms they have volunteered to defend and are willing to die for.”

The latest development, was an affirmation by the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces’ punishment of Sterling.

The next step will be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, her legal team said.

“This is a real-life example of why judges shouldn’t play theologians,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel of the Becket Fund, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Sterling.

“Here, a few judges concluded that keeping scripture nearby isn’t ‘important,’ even though more than half of the world’s population belong to religions that teach the exact opposite. Avoiding obvious errors like this is why RFRA protects all religious beliefs, not just beliefs that government officials deem ‘important.’”

The organization pointed out that Sterling’s co-workers were permitted to keep nonreligious messages on their desks. And it argued her actions were protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

One judge on the military panel disagreed with the punishment, noting that federal law “does not empower judges to curtail various manifestations of sincere religious belief simply by arbitrarily deciding that a certain act was not ‘important’ to the believer’s exercise of religion.”

The Becket Fund’s brief was on behalf of religious faiths, including Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, Mormon, Muslim, Presbyterian, Sikh and Southern Baptist.

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