Marine Challenges Court Martial on Religious Freedom Grounds

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Does a military service member have a right to religious freedom?

The Court Martial of Monifa F. Sterling, a North Carolina-based marine, will now be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The case raises a number of questions about military discipline and religious freedom.

As has widely been reported, Sterling’s case began in May 2013, when she printed three copies of the biblical quote “no weapon formed against me shall prosper,” taped one on her computer tower, one above the computer monitor and one above her in-box. Sterling refused to remove them after being ordered to do so by a staff sergeant, and then replaced them after the sergeant removed them.

The U.S. Navy-marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed her conviction saying here misconduct was not minor and that “to accomplish its mission the military must foster instinctive obedience, unity, commitment, and esprit de corps.”

The issue before the U.S. Court of Appeals is whether the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects Sterling’s defiance of command on religious freedom grounds. The Act requires that federal laws that “substantially burden” an individual’s exercise of religion must serve a “compelling government interest” and be the “least restrictive” means possible.

In a related case, a federal court recently ruled in favor of a Sikh ROTC student’s right to wear a
beard and turban, despite the Army’s clean-face grooming policy.

In the original proceeding, a military court noted Sterling’s relationship with her superiors was
antagonistic and that there were other disobedience charges. Moreover, Government attorneys argued she failed to show that the Marine Corps had placed a substantial burden on her religious practice.

“She submitted no evidence that she was pressured to change her religious behavior or modify her religious beliefs,” government attorneys said.

The higher military appeals court will now address the issues of whether the staff sergeant’s
order burdened an exercise of religion and if so whether it served a compelling government interest in the least restrictive means possible.

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