A U.S. Marine who was court-martialed in 2014 for failing to remove a Bible verse from her work desk has launched an appeal, bolstered by a religious liberty law firm.
The Liberty Institute and former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement have filed an appeal of the guilty verdict to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling was convicted last February for not following orders to remove small strips of paper with a scripture verse from the book of Isaiah she had taped to her computer.
The courts found that other Marines who might pass by her desk “would be exposed to biblical quotations,” an odd choice of words that makes the Bible texts sound like radioactive waste or nerve gas.
A Liberty Institute attorney, Hiram Sasser, pointed out the obvious: “Our Marines are trained to deal with some of the most hostile people on the planet. I don’t think they are afraid of tiny words on a tiny piece of paper.”
The subversive text in question read, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper,” which to an unbiased observer, seems strikingly appropriate for men and women who have pledged their lives in defense of the country.
On hearing of the court-martial, Christian evangelist Franklin Graham expressed his disgust on Twitter:
A Marine being prosecuted for posting a Bible verse? Today our culture tolerates everything–except for God's Word. http://t.co/WM1gVG5XVC
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) May 27, 2015
As a result of the court-martial, Sterling was demoted in rank from lance corporal to private and received a dishonorable discharge from the armed services.
“If the government can order a Marine not to display a Bible verse, they could try and order her not to get a religious tattoo, or go to church on Sunday,” said Liberty Institute attorney Michael Berry.
“Restricting a Marine’s free exercise of religion is blatantly unconstitutional.”
The lawyers plan to argue that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act should have been applied to her case, which protects free exercise of religion.
Both the trial and appellate court found that the law did not apply to her case because they did not consider the display of a Bible verse to constitute religious exercise.
The court found that “a government desk festooned with religious quotations” could cause a “divisive impact to good order and discipline,” but did not offer an opinion regarding the possible divisive impact of desks “festooned” with other inspirational quotes or pictures of cats or pandas, for that matter.
Berry, in fact, pointed out that other Marines were permitted to decorate their desks, but for some reason, the lower courts did not allow that evidence to be admitted.
Sterling defended her actions, asserting it was her First Amendment right to display the verse, but the next day she found that her supervisor had removed the texts and thrown them in the trash.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.