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Quoting scripture while on duty

Military Court of Appeals to rule on freedom of religious expression in the military

A sketch artist renders arguments during a hearing Wednesday at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces on religious freedom in the military. Photographed by Dianna Cahn 4/27/2016

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The Military Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., heard arguments last week in the case of the United States vs. Sterling to decide if the posting of quotations from sacred texts count as the practice of religion for military persons.  To what extent is religious expression in the United States military protected under the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected?

At the epicenter of this case is the 2014 court-martial of Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling. Stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Sterling was disciplined for her failure to remove a biblical quote that she had displayed near her workstation. The quote, "No weapon formed against me shall prosper," is taken from the book of Isaiah. Although no one had complained about the quote, her supervisor repeatedly ordered Sterling to remove it, even going so far as to remove it herself and dispose of it in Sterling's absence. Sterling replaced it and repeatedly refused to remove it. The incident culminated in her court-martial.

Sterling's case was initially appealed to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals on the basis of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but the court upheld her court-martial, arguing that:

"It is not hard to imagine the divisive impact to good order and discipline that may result when a servicemember is compelled to work at a government desk festooned with religious quotations, especially if that servicemember does not share that religion. The risk that such exposure could impact the morale or discipline of the command is not slight. 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."

This prompted the First Liberty Institute, who is defending Sterling, to file an appeal on her behalf to the highest military court in the country, the Military Court of Appeals. According to their website, the First Liberty Institute "is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to protecting religious freedom for all Americans."

On April 27, both sides presented their arguments before the court. Represented by Daniel Blomberg, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an organization that  "is a nonprofit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths," filed a friend-of-the-court, or "amicus," brief in support of Sterling and on behalf of the Army Chief of Chaplains, Air Force Chaplains, Marine Corps Chaplains, and a number of religious organizations including: the chaplain organizations of the Southern Baptist Church, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Assemblies of God, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as well as Jewish Chaplains, Muslim Chaplains, and Bronze Star Medal recipient, Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsia, member of the Sikh faith, who served as the Chief of Disaster Medicine for the Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan.

The lower courts had ruled that 1) posting Bible verses is not a religious exercise and 2) religious speech should not be protected under the First Amendment or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because it might potentially be divisive. The Becket Fund's brief argued that this was a very dangerous ruling, first of all, because it allows the courts to determine what constitutes the exercise of a religion and, secondly, because it gives commanding officers the right to censor-free speech as they see fit.

According to Blomberg, the government's brief had argued that Sterling was a "bad marine" who deserved to be court-martialed for several reasons. Blomberg argued that Sterling's general performance as a marine is irrelevant to this particular case because a ruling in favor of the court-martial would impact all servicemembers, not just Sterling.

"The lower court's ruling was clearly wrong," said Blomberg. "When you attack religious liberty for one person, you attack it for everyone."

Now that both sides have presented arguments and filed briefs, the court is expected to rule within the next three to 12 months. Blomberg is optimistic that the court will overturn the lower court's ruling, stating that he was "encouraged by the court's vigorous attention to the issue."

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