There’s No Religious Freedom Right To Be Insubordinate In The Military

It was a busy morning at the Supreme Court. The high court handed down a decision in an important case dealing with religiously affiliated hospitals and employee pensions. We’ll have some analysis of that case later. For now, let’s take a look at a case that justices decided not to hear – Sterling v. United States.

In Sterling, the courts of the Armed Forces correctly concluded that after-the-fact claims of religious liberty cannot excuse blatant insubordination. Religious liberty is a fundamental American value, but allowing servicemembers to do as they please under the guise of religion would undercut genuine claims for religious exemptions. And this case was only ever really about insubordination.   

Religious freedom gives you no right to enage in insubordination in the Marines or any other branch of the military.

Former Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling was court-martialed for months of violating her duties: She ignored orders from superior officers, didn’t show up for duty, and refused to wear the required uniform. And in the midst of a contentious relationship with her direct supervisor, Sterling posted signs at her work station that read, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.” When her supervisor told her to remove the signs, Sterling refused. When the supervisor took them down, Sterling replaced them the next day. Ordered to take them down again, she refused.

Months later, Sterling was court-martialed for all of her insubordinate acts, including refusing to remove the signs, and received a bad-conduct discharge. It was during her court-martial that Sterling stated — for the first time — that her signs were religious (the passage is an adaption of Isaiah 54:17). Despite never having told her supervisor that the signs were religious and never having sought any religious exemption, she argued that her actions were protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law designed to protect religious expression.

But just as RFRA doesn’t give people the right to subject others to harm or ill-treatment, it does not grant a service member the right to repeatedly break the rules.

In a legal brief, Americans United and allied groups explained that there was no burden on Sterling’s religious exercise, and that the military can’t function if members of the armed forces refuse to follow orders. We noted that the military is required to meet the reasonable religious needs of the men and women who serve in uniform, but it isn’t required to tolerate insubordination or just plain bad behavior.

This isn’t a case about the government standing in the way of someone’s genuine religious expression. As we have explained, Sterling is no martyr; she’s just a person who refused to do her job and follow orders. Her argument was always poor one, and that’s why federal courts didn’t accept it.

Today’s action by the Supreme Court means that Sterling’s case is over. And that’s good for religious freedom and members of the armed forces.