Can a scrap of paper end your military career? It can if it has a Bible verse on it. Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling found that out when her supervisor ordered her to take down a piece of paper with Isaiah 54:17 written on it. When she refused, the Marines court-martialed her for it.
In the tribunal, Monifa was found guilty and demoted two ranks. Now, a year later, she’s unemployed — and fighting for her military life. This morning, after appealing her punishment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces finally heard her case. Paul Clement, one of the most respected constitutional attorneys in the country, argued for Monifa on behalf of our friends at First Liberty Institute.
FRC veterans Travis Weber and Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin (U.S. Army-Ret.) were in the courtroom for the trial, which, Travis pointed out, should be a straight-forward case. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protects “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” Obviously, posting Bible verses is an exercise of religion. And just because Monifa is a member of the military doesn’t mean she has to surrender those First Amendment rights.
Under questioning from the judges, even the government admitted that RFRA applies to the military. While the government tried to shift attention away from RFRA (since, as Travis pointed out, a straightforward RFRA analysis is harmful to its case), it’s clear the military knew religious exercise was at play here and substantially burdened this exercise by court martialing the service member engaged in it.
In his closing argument, Clement explained that there isn’t a “magic words” test in applying RFRA. In addition, the trial court clearly recognized the religious nature of the postings, he said. As far as he is concerned, the lower court falsely applied a far too restrictive understanding of RFRA and must be reversed. “A win for the appellant in this case is a win for both religious exercise and the readiness of our military as a whole,” Travis wrote, “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.”
The First Amendment — and the Pentagon’s own policy — protects troops’ rights to express their faith. Service members give up a lot of individual rights to be in the military — but religious freedom isn’t one of them.
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