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Court rules Marine’s religious rights not violated

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — The highest U.S. military court has upheld the bad conduct discharge of a Marine whose case had climbed to the top of the legal system over the question of whether her religious freedom had been violated.

In a 4-1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces upheld lower court determinations that Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling’s religious rights were not violated when a superior ordered her to take down signs containing a biblical passage that she’d posted around her desk at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The judges upheld lower court conclusions that Sterling’s refusal, in the context of a contentious relationship with her bosses and the combative nature of the passage, was less an exercise of religion than an act of insubordination.

Sterling was ordered demoted and discharged in a 2014 court-martial and the case has been climbing through the courts since, with defenders of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act arguing on Sterling’s behalf.

The court found Sterling had failed to establish a RFRA case and determined that her superior’s orders to remove the signs was “lawful.”

“Without question, a junior Marine in a contentious relationship with her superiors posting combative signs in the workplace could undermine good order and discipline,” the ruling said.

“This is not the usual case where an individual or group sought accommodation for an exercise of religion and was denied,” wrote Judge Margaret Ryan on behalf of the majority. “Nor is this a case where the practice at issue was either patently religious, such as wearing a hijab, or one where it was not but a government actor somehow knew the practice was religious and prohibited it on that basis.”

The First Liberty Institute, which led Sterling’s defense, said it would file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is absolutely outrageous,” Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, said in a statement. “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. This cannot be allowed to stand.”

Bradley Girard, a constitutional litigation fellow at the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the ruling served to protect religious freedom in the military by calling Sterling out for using it to justify her actions.

“It’s an important decision because disingenuous claims of religious liberty harm people who legitimately have claims of religious liberty and the institutions that seek to protect those,” Girard said.

Girard said due to the facts of the case, he was doubtful the Supreme Court would hear it.

As the first case of its kind to reach the Armed Forces appeals court, the case had held the potential to set precedent on questions about basic religious freedoms in a military environment. The appeals were based on the question of whether lower courts had adequately examined the case in the context of the religious freedom act.

The judges found that Sterling’s actions focused more on her conflict with her bosses than her religion when she posted signs around her desk that read, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” and repeatedly refused to take them down. They also noted that Sterling had disobeyed other orders and had been denied promotion due to her poor behavior.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Kevin Ohlson wrote that although it was likely the outcome of the case would be the same, the lower court had failed to look at the question of whether Sterling’s religious beliefs were sincere. That failure, he said, merited the case be returned to the court to look at the issue.

Ohlson said it was likely that Sterling had “mixed motives for acting upon those beliefs such as invoking a biblical passage in order to engage in a passive-aggressive display of contempt for military leadership.”

“I readily concede that even if the (lower court) had applied the correct legal standard in this case, LCpl Sterling may not have prevailed on the merits,” Ohlson wrote.

But without the court properly examining the question, RFRA was not properly protected, Ohlson said.

“I conclude that the majority’s analysis of the underlying legal issues raises the prospect that other servicemembers in the future may be subjected to conviction at court-martial for merely engaging in religious exercise that is entitled to protection under the statute.”

That question could provide the basis for the Supreme Court to consider the case.

cahn.dianna@stripes.com
Twitter: @DiannaCahn

 

A video screen grab shows former Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling reading a Bible. The Marine was court-martialed for not removing a Bible verse from her desk computer.
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