This article was first published by The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Friday, May 29, 2015:
One day in May, 2013, Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling’s boss entered her cubicle at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina and told her to remove three Scriptures she had attached to her computer monitor and her walls. Sterling refused.
The next morning Sterling discovered them in her trash basket. She put them back up on her computer screen and walls and that’s when the trouble began. Her staff sergeant, a foul-mouthed former drill instructor, ordered her in no uncertain terms that were laced with obscenities to remove them. Sterling once again refused.
All was quiet for a few weeks, but then, during reviews, Sterling became aware that she was being written up for minor infractions which hadn’t happened before. She was written up for not wearing her uniform when her doctor, who was treating her for severe back pain, suggested wearing civilian clothes for a few days might be better for her.
Two months later Sterling learned she was the target of a Court Martial for disobeying orders of a superior, coupled with other infractions.
Sterling prepared to defend herself, reacquainting herself with the meaning behind the words in the First Amendment guaranteeing her freedom of religion as well as the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton. The language of the act was clear: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion…,” along with two exceptions, neither of which applied in her case. Or so she thought.
What was the big deal? All she had done was take Isaiah 54.17:
‘No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,’ declares the Lord.
and shorten it to read: “No weapon forged against me shall prosper.” Little did she know then how much she would have to rely on that promise in the months and years to come.
In the first trial Marine lawyers ate her up. They claimed that she disobeyed a direct order from a superior. Twice. They claimed that she became arrogant when challenged about the matter. They didn’t like the idea that, on her own, she decided to wear street clothes rather than her uniform despite her doctor’s suggestion. She tried to point out that no one in her area had complained about her scriptures. That was disallowed. She said that other Marines had decorated their own cubicles with quotes both inspirational and political. That was disallowed.
She appealed the initial Court Martial. She didn’t fare any better. She was demoted from Lance Corporal to Private and dishonorably discharged from the Marines – a blemish on her record that makes it difficult presently for her to find other work in the private sector.
Liberty Institute became aware of her case and enlisted one its big guns, Paul Clement, to bring an appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF), one step below the Supreme Court. Clement has represented clients in dozens of cases, the most recent one being his success in helping the Supreme Court rule in support of Hobby Lobby against ObamaCare. A former U.S. solicitor general and currently a professor of law at Georgetown University, Clement is ready for World War III:
If the government can order a Marine not to display a Bible verse, they could try and order her not to get a religious tattoo, or go to church on Sunday.
Restricting a Marine’s free exercise of religion is blatantly unconstitutional.
His plan of attack is to challenge the “exercise of religion” noted in the RFRA, if his appeal to the CAAF is accepted. According to the decision in Sterling’s appeal, the court was not persuaded “that displaying a religious text at a shared government workstation would be protected even in a civilian federal workplace.”
The only problem with that is 1) that this was the conflict the RFRA was supposed to resolve, and 2) she had her own computer at the time. She was “sharing” it with no one. The court was undeterred:
The implication is clear – the junior Marine [Sterling] sharing the desk and the other Marines coming to [her] desk for assistance would be exposed to Biblical [lower case biblical in the original quote] quotations in the military workplace.
It is not hard to imagine the divisive impact to good order and discipline that may result when a service member is compelled to work at a government desk festooned with religious quotations.
The court added:
Maintaining discipline and morale in the military work center could very well require that the work center remain relatively free of divisive or contentious issues such as personal beliefs, religion, politics, etc….
Military orders are presumed to be lawful and are disobeyed at the subordinate’s peril.
Sterling’s court martial sits well with a group that, on the surface, would likely support Clement and the Liberty Institute: the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, formed by Michael Weinstein. On its website is found this:
MRFF believes that religious faith is a Constitutionally guaranteed freedom that must never be compromised, except in the most limited of military circumstances, because of its fundamental importance to the preservation of the American nation and the American way of life.
Uh huh. When pressed on the matter, Weinstein waffled: “We are a secular nation, and particularly so in the U.S. military.” Translation: the Marines are right, Sterling is wrong, get over it.
The downstream media has chosen to all but ignore this case despite its enormous implications for religious freedom in the US. As Liberty Institute’s Strategic Director of Litigation Hiram Sasser explained:
Ms. Sterling posted the Bible verse as an expression of her faith – an expression which should have been protected by RFRA. By failing to protect Ms. Sterling’s religious freedom, an injustice has been done.
We hope the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces will take this opportunity to right this wrong … and set a clear precedent that our service members have a right to religious freedom.
It’s comforting to those in the freedom fight to learn of the magnificent courage, determination and faithfulness of people like Monifa Sterling who are willing to risk it all – job security, reputation, and more – to defend something they think transcends all of that: belief in an eternal God who guarantees that “no weapon forged against you will prevail.”