A former Marine court-martialed in part for refusing to remove a biblical phrase from her workspace lost her appeal on Wednesday, when a federal court concluded the orders from her superiors did not constitute a "substantial burden" on her First Amendment rights.
Monifa Sterling, who was a lance corporal stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was court-martialed for various offenses relating to separate incidents – including disrespecting a superior officer, disobeying lawful orders, and failing to report to an assigned duty.
But the part of the case that fueled her court challenge involved orders to remove a personalized version of the biblical phrase from Isiah 54:17: "No weapon formed against thee shall prosper."
Sterling taped the verses in three spots on her workspace. Court testimony said Sterling's superior repeatedly ordered her to remove the signs -- and when she refused, trashed them.
In its 4-1 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces turned away Sterling’s case.
At issue is the extent a federal law on religious freedom protects members of the Armed Forces. The intersection of free speech on government property, especially within a military context, has made this case closely watched by a number of advocates on both sides of the debate
"This is absolutely outrageous," said Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute. "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."...In a dissent, Judge Kevin Ohlson said, "while the military's asserted interest in good order and discipline surely deserves great deference, it does not demand reflexive devotion."
The key dispute for the judges was interpreting a 1993 federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, requiring the government to seek the "least burdensome" and narrowly tailored means for any law that interferes with religious convictions.