US Marine Court-Martialed for Bible Quotes on Desk

In an apparently unreported story, a US Marine was court-martialed for, among other things, refusing to remove Biblical quotes taped to her desk. The “among other things” part may explain why the case hasn’t attracted much attention.  If the description in the court’s ruling was accurate, the Marine had quite a few “issues” beyond taping quotes to her desk.

However, to the relevant portion of US v Sterling (available here through a restricted access Lexis portal), as documented by the US Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals:

In May of 2013, the appellant’s duties included sitting at a desk and utilizing a computer to assist Marines experiencing issues with their Common Access Cards. The appellant printed three copies of the biblical quote “no weapon formed against me shall prosper”…cut the quotes to size and taped one along the top of the computer tower, one above the computer monitor on the desk, and one above the in-box. The appellant testified that she is a Christian and that she posted the quotation in three places to represent the Christian trinity.

The Marine was ordered by a superior enlisted supervisor to remove the signs. She refused, and the superior removed them herself. The next day, the Marine re-hung the signs, and the superior re-removed them.

At trial, the Marine said the order to remove the signs violated her free exercise. The trial judge did not agree, and said the order was based on the fact her desk was a common work area and, out of context, the quotes

could easily be seen as contrary to good order and discipline.

More to the point, the judge ruled

the order to remove the signs “did not interfere with the accused’s private rights or personal affairs in anyway.”

The Appeals court, in denying her appeal to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, essentially said the act of putting up three copies of a Bible verse was not “religious exercise.”

The appellant never told her [superior] that the signs had a religious connotation and never requested any religious accommodation to enable her to display the signs. Instead…the appellant was simply placing what she believed to be personal reminders that those she considered adversaries could not harm her. Such action does not trigger the RFRA.

The trial court found there was a legitimate military need to remove the signs because

although the verbiage…[was] biblical in nature, read something to the effect of no weapon found [sic] against me shall prosper…which could easily be seen as contrary to good order and discipline.

In other words, the trial court took the position that the plain text, regardless of the Biblical source, could be interpreted as hostile or antagonistic, even to the Marine’s peers or supervisors — and that was enough to justify the removal.

The Appeals court went a step (much) further, saying it was “not hard to imagine” the damage that could be done only by the fact it was Biblical text, regardless of what the text actually said [emphasis added]:

The implication is clear–the junior Marine sharing the desk and the other Marines coming to the desk for assistance would be exposed to biblical quotations in the military workplace. It is not hard to imagine the divisive impact to good order and discipline that may result when a service member is compelled to work at a government desk festooned with religious quotations, especially if that service member does not share that religion. The risk that such exposure could impact the morale or discipline of the command is not slight.

The extrapolation of this incident to hypotheticals involving desks “festooned with religious quotations” is laughable. The Court had a concrete example to address: a single quote (copied thrice) that was apparently unreferenced, meaning it likely wasn’t recognizable as “religious” to begin with. That the Court would find concern with troops being “exposed to biblical quotations” is similarly outlandish, as simple “exposure” is not actionable either within the US military or in law. The “risk that such [hypothetical] exposure” would have on a military unit is irrelevant to this case, and it is disturbing that the Appeals court felt the need to pontificate on a topic not even necessary to the ruling.

The Court segued from that stretch of text to a far more reasonable perspective:

Maintaining discipline and morale in the military work center could very well require that the work center remain relatively free of divisive or contentious issues such as personal beliefs, religion, politics, etc., and a command may act preemptively to prevent this detrimental effect.

That is absolutely true and proper. What the Court omits is that such policies must be broadly and fairly applied, not targeted to specific types of beliefs or paradigms. That the Court would give deference to the military command structure to create such policies negates its own previous discussion on desks “festooned” with quotes: The military can maintain “discipline and morale” through policies that control this conduct and make its own decisions about what “risks” are incurred by “exposing” Marines to certain quotes.

The Appeals Court’s paragraph on the dangers of Biblical quotes at military desks was the outlier within the ruling. It seems, based on the totality of the text in the appeal, that the Marine and her chain of command had a combative relationship on many things. (The ruling explicitly describes their relationship as “contentious.”) For example, the ruling indicates that in several incidents the Marine outright refused to obey orders of ranking enlisted supervisors and officers. The issue of the signs was likely just “one more straw” rather than a discrete issue unto itself.

In other words, the “court-martialed for Bible verses” was really an already combative Marine doing one more thing to make the lives of her peers and chain of command more difficult. The trial court’s conclusions even on that topic were reasonable (though the Appeals court extrapolated into murky territory), and it is likely that most service members of faith would likely agree with the outcome.

There is room for discussion when religious content is treated differently than non-religious content within the military setting. There are wise ways to handle orders and policies that appear to contradict a troop’s religious faith or restrict a troop’s religious rights (and those ways weren’t displayed here). For the military Christian, situations that seem to reflect that conflict may arise, and there are ways to prayerfully prepare to use wisdom, tact, and courage when necessary. The book Christian Fighter Pilot discusses some of these situations, as well as ways to handle them. For example, one of the best pieces of advice is for military Christians to seek the advice of mentors in both their faith and profession.

“Marine Court-Martialed for Bible Quotes on Desk?” Not exactly.

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
1 Peter 2:12

Via the Religion Clause.