After oral argument Wednesday morning in United States v. Sterling before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, there is reason to remain hopeful that the court will see the clear Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) claim in this case and that the appellant will prevail on that claim. The case, concerning a Marine lance corporal’s posting of verses of scripture at her desk, and subsequent court martial for refusing to remove them, has significant implications for religious freedom in the military.
As Paul Clement, arguing for the appellant, pointed out: the RFRA analysis is straightforward in this case. RFRA protects “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” Clearly, posting Bible verses are an exercise of religion. And this exercise was substantially burdened in this case by the special court martial conviction imposed after the lance corporal refused to compromise her religious exercise by taking down the verses. The Supreme Court has found a substantial burden on much less punishment from the government. While not diminishing the unique needs of the military to maintain good order and discipline, Clement highlighted the clear religious freedom violation in this case.
The government tried to dispute the presence of a substantial burden, but the cases on this point are not helpful to the government. Its attorney tried to argue that a hypothetical religious belief requiring adherents to write in chalk on the sidewalk in front of the White House would not be allowed and is therefore not substantially burdened, but this is a flat-out misunderstanding of RFRA! Such a belief may in fact be substantially burdened, but would not be permitted because the government has a compelling interest in the security of that property.
The government also wanted to focus on the need of the lance corporal to obtain some sort of “accommodation,” claiming the way it was handled here showed the “lack of a substantial burden.” But this is a mere attempt to distract from the plain text of RFRA.
Upon questioning from the judges, the government expressly admitted the quite obvious fact that RFRA applies to the military. (One judge seemed to grasp that the government was in a tough spot because RFRA applies to the “government as a whole,” which includes the military.) The government also admitted it didn’t know this was a RFRA case in the trial below, which (if believable)—while not letting it off the hook—further highlights sloppy handling of the claim below. (The lance corporal invoked DODI 1300.17, which contains the same standard as RFRA, and other evidence clearly indicates she was bringing a religious exercise claim). While the government tried to shift attention away from RFRA because a straightforward RFRA analysis is harmful to its case, it is clear that the military knew religious exercise was at play here, and substantially burdened this exercise by court martialing the service member engaged in it.
The government wanted to argue that because the lance corporal (who did not have the helpful assistance of an attorney in the courts below, which the chief judge noted required granting her actions more deference) did not literally say “RFRA” or “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” she has now waived the religious exercise claim. This is just silly. The government clearly was on notice that her claim was religious.
Paul Clement pointed this out in his closing argument, noting there is no “magic words” test in applying RFRA. In addition, the trial court clearly recognized the religious nature of the postings, he said. Finally, the “accommodation” issue does not decide the substantial burden question! (The government seemed to need help understanding this.) In summary, the lower court falsely applied a far too restrictive understanding of RFRA, and must be reversed, Clement argued.
A win for the appellant in this case is a win for both religious exercise and the readiness of our military as a whole, for our armed forces can only be strengthened as their individual members draw upon faith to face hardship and danger in battle.
What should happen here? As Clement noted, there should be an obvious application of the text of RFRA. When this analysis is conducted, the lance corporal wins. Let us hope the court sees this as clearly as it decides this case in the coming months.