Is posting a Bible verse on a desktop computer in a military workplace an act protected under the Constitution as a free expression of religion?
Or is such an open display of religiosity an affront to "good order and discipline"?
The military's highest court may soon face that question as a court-martial appeal from an enlisted Marine moves forward.
The case involves former Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling, who in May 2013 was assigned at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to a desk job handling complaints from other Marines experiencing issues with their Common Access Cards.
Sterling taped three paper copies of the same quote — "No weapon formed against me shall prosper" — in 28-point type on her computer's tower, her monitor and her desk. The line is a variant of a passage from Isaiah 57:14; Sterling said the three copies reflected the Trinity.
A native New Yorker and Christian who does not affiliate with a particular denomination, Sterling told military officials that the posted passage helped her summon patience when dealing with short-tempered Marines who were frustrated with their CAC problems.
But Sterling's staff sergeant didn't like the passages and ordered her to remove them. When Sterling refused, the staff sergeant ripped them off herself. The next day, Sterling replaced the passages with new ones, and the staff sergeant removed those as well.
Ultimately, Sterling was charged with violation of a lawful order and that, along with other low-level misconduct, led to her court-martial conviction and a sentence of reduction in rank to E-1 and a bad-conduct discharge.
In Sterling's first appeal, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeals in February upheld the conviction. A military judge determined that the quotations, "could be interpreted as combative … [and] could easily be seen as contrary to good order and discipline," court records show.
Now Sterling is taking her case to the military's highest court, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
Her appeal is drawing support from the Liberty Institute, a not-for-profit group that advocates for freedom of religion, as well as Paul Clement, a former solicitor general of the United States and an expert on the religious freedom law.
Her appeal centers on her rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that clarifies the constitutional right to freedom of religion and states that the government has to provide a good reason before restricting someone's religious activities.
"To me, this is analogous to: What if a Marine wants to get a tattoo of a cross on their shoulder or on their back. Is the Marine Corps going to tell them that is religious, and you can't do it?" said Michael Berry, the Liberty Institute attorney handling Sterling's appeal.
"Most people would say, 'Well wait a minute, the government should have a really good reason before they tell someone not to get a tattoo," Berry said in an interview.
In Sterling's case, "you've got a military court saying it doesn't apply in this case because we don't think this was a religious exercise. But courts are not allowed to say whether or not someone's beliefs are religious or not," Berry said.
The religious freedom law at issue is the same one invoked last year before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that some employers should be exempted from the national health care reform law that requires companies to provide coverage of contraception for women. The plaintiff in that case, the Hobby Lobby, also was represented by Clement.
The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces will decide later this year whether to hear the case and schedule oral arguments.
Other convictions included in Sterling's original case involved charges of refusing orders to perform duties for which Sterling said she was medically exempted. Those charges and convictions factored into her sentencing, but are not the subject of her current appeal to the military high court.
One of the key reasons Sterling's appeal was previously denied is because the desk where she taped those Bible passages was used and visible to other Marines.
"The risk that such exposure could impact the morale or discipline of the command is not slight," the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeals concluded in February.
"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 pre-emptively to prevent this detrimental effect," the court ruled.
Photo by Wynona Benson Photography