Precedent? Bible-Quoting Court-Martialed Marine’s Conviction Upheld

Monifa Sterling was court-martialed by the US Marine Corps for a variety of charges. One was failure to obey an order, when she refused after being told to remove three print-outs of a paraphrased Bible verse from her desk.

With the help of the First Liberty Institute, Sterling appealed to the highest military court, the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, on the basis that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected her religious exercise. (Despite some ignorant mockery from Mikey Weinstein’s Chris Rodda, the remaining charges for which she was convicted were not appealed, meaning her Bad Conduct Discharge wasn’t going to change.)

In a 4-1 ruling (PDF), the court upheld her conviction on that charge.

One interesting result was the court seemed unanimous in its “reject[ion]” of the logic used by the lower court, the US Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, which said (PDF) the order to remove the signs was lawful because

the signs could have fostered religious divisions in the military workplace

The USCAAF said in response:

We reject this basis for concluding that the orders were lawful…There is nothing in the record to establish that the signs were readily identifiable as religious quotations, and thus, the notion that they would foster religious divisions seems untenable.

The USCAAF also rejected another portion of the NMCCA’s ruling, saying

The NMCCA’s holding that RFRA’s definition of “‘religious exercise’ requires the practice be ‘part of a system of religious belief’” was too narrow…

Ironically, though, the USCCAF ultimately upheld the conviction by saying it did not “substantially burden” her exercise. To make that case, they essentially used the NMCCA’s logic to analyze Sterling’s religious exercise:

Appellant did not present any testimony that the signs were important to her exercise of religion, or that removing the signs would either prevent her “‘from engaging in conduct [her] religion requires,’”…or cause her to “abandon[] one of the precepts of her religion”…

She did not testify that she believed it is any tenet or practice of her faith to display signs at work.

In a roundabout way, the CCAF borrowed the lower court’s reliance upon the exercise as defined in a “system of religious belief.” The court determined that the posting of signs was not part of a belief system — even if it was a religious exercise — and was therefore not something that could even be “burdened” by the government.

The judge issuing the lone dissent did not necessarily say he believed Sterling would have prevailed on the merits; rather, he would have remanded the case based on the faulty analysis by the lower court. (That point may form a basis for another appeal.)  He did, however, contradict the majority’s belief that a religious exercise must be a formal religious tenet to warrant protection:

Judge OHLSON, dissenting.
In my view, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act…provides the men and women of our nation’s armed forces with the presumptive right to fully, openly, and spontaneously engage in religious exercise. This right extends to sincere religious conduct that is not specifically required by, or deemed by judges to be important to, the tenets of a servicemember’s faith.

Judge Kevin Ohlson probably had one of the more interesting observations in the ruling, as well. While the majority of the court paid “significant attention” to Sterling’s poor conduct, Ohlson reminded everyone that religious liberty protections are not predicated on good behavior:

The majority devotes significant attention to the numerous leadership challenges presented by Appellant. However, RFRA does not predicate its applicability on the obedience, punctuality, demeanor, or performance of the person engaging in religious exercise.

It’s easy to lump Sterling into a “bad Marine” or “bad person” category and then hand-wave the religious liberty issue. (That’s essentially what Chris Rodda did, apparently deciding a “bad Marine” was not worthy of religious liberty.) Ohlson makes a valid point, however. The reason liberty protections exist is not to protect the popular, or the easy, or the agreed upon — it is the disagreeable, contentious, and even offensive that often requires protection from what some may think is justified mistreatment.

There are indications Sterling’s case may be appealed one final time, to the US Supreme Court. While some have called the case “precedent setting,” its unclear at this point whether it is a case the Supreme Court would take.  For his part, columnist and constitutional lawyer Noah Feldman seemed to believe the majority of the court’s decision ran counter to Supreme Court precedent — but that the case should get a pass, because it was the military.

There’s at least one person already running with the precedent, though:

Calling the decision a new weapon in the fight over religiosity in the armed forces, Mr. Weinstein said…the case will have “humongous ramifications” in how religious disputes are litigated in the military.

“With superiors that want to display biblical citations in their military office space, in a tank, on a military airplane, have Bibles on their desks — I can’t say with enough fortitude how important this decision is,” he said.

For a former lawyer, Mikey Weinstein can display an amazing amount of ignorance sometimes — though the quote was likely intended for specific audiences. Ultimately, this case had nothing to do with superiors displaying Bible verses or “hav[ing] Bibles on their desks,” nor can it realistically be applied to those scenarios.

Still, it is disturbing that Mikey Weinstein is so fixated against the religious liberties of US military Christians he wants to see Bibles banned from their desks.

In Mikey Weinstein’s world, a Jewish US military officer can wear a (religious) yarmulke while he sits at his desk in his uniform, but it should be illegal for a Christian officer to have a (religious) book somewhere on his desk.

Does that sound like military religious freedom or equal treatment to you?

Why does Mikey Weinstein have such a pathological hatred for the Bible and Christians? In the end, it doesn’t matter. At least now military leaders know Weinstein is after the Bible — and not principled religious liberty — and can treat his demands as the bigoted tripe they are.