Last year, this blog reported on the case of Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling, a Marine who was court-maritaled on several charges stemming from conflicts between her and her superior officers. Of those charges, one of them posed a particular question of religious freedom while on duty. Now, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) has ruled that Sterling's claims of protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act do not apply to this case and her bad-conduct discharge has been upheld.
As recounted by CAAFlog and FOX News, Sterling was having several conflicts with superior officers in the office where she worked. The charges leveled against her in 2014 were threefold: failure to go to her appointed place of duty, disrespect towards a superior commissioned officer, and four specifications of disobeying the lawful order of a noncommissioned officer.
These charges address one specific instance where Sterling had refused to remove three signs from her office desk that displayed bible passages ("No weapon formed against me shall prosper"). Sterling was convicted in her court-martial and, in her first appeal of those convictions, claimed her display of the passages were protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—an argument that was not made during her initial trial. The Navy-Marine Corps CCA upheld the court-martial convictions, forcing Sterling to appeal to the CAAF for a final decision.
THE FOUR ISSUES
The CAAF judges reviewed four specific issues of the case. One: did Sterling establish that displaying the signs was an exercise of her RFRA rights? Two: did the superior officer have a valid reason to remove the signs? Three: did Sterling follow proper procedure to have any RFRA protections recognized? Four: did Sterling waive her RFRA claims by failing to raise the RFRA issue in her initial court-martial?
In a 4-1 split decision, the CAAF judges ruled that:
- Issue 1: Sterling failed to establish facts that would support her RFRA rights on this issue.
- Issue 2: The superior officer's order to remove the signs was valid.
- Issue 3: Sterling did follow proper procedure to have RFRA rights recognized.
- Issue 4: Sterling's failure to invoke her RFRA claims at her initial court-martial did not restrict her from invoking them on further appeal.
Judge Ohlson was the only member of the CAAF panel who felt that the circumstances in Sterling's case did apply to the protections under RFRA. In his dissenting opinion, he writes: "I conclude that the majority’s analysis of the underlying legal issue 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. Therefore, I must respectfully dissent."
Kelly Shackelford of the First Liberty Institute also felt that the decision sets a troubling precedent for religious freedom in the military, calling the decision “absolutely outrageous.” “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,” she told FOX News.
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