A woman who received a bad-conduct discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps does not have a right to display religious signs on government property, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In a brief filed Friday, Americans United told the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Services that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law intended to protect religious minorities from government overreach, does not give Monifa Sterling, a former lance corporal, cover to disobey her superiors. “Monifa Sterling failed to listen to her superiors,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Her phony claims of religious persecution are nothing more than a desperate effort to cover up her insubordination.” In February 2014, Sterling was convicted following a court-martial of violating numerous provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including refusal to report to duty and refusal to wear the proper uniform. As a result, she was demoted in rank and received a bad-conduct discharge. Additionally, during a dispute with her supervising non-commissioned officer, Sterling posted three signs in a public workspace that read, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.” She was asked, twice, to remove the signs but refused. Only during her testimony at her court-martial, however, did she claim that the signs were an altered Bible quotation. And only during her appeal did she argue that RFRA gives her the right to display such signs. In its brief, Americans United noted that Sterling failed to ask for a religious accommodation upfront. “If being expected to comply with orders when one has not asked for a religious accommodation were a substantial burden on religious exercise in the military, servicemembers could ignore orders from superiors with impunity; RFRA would always be an available escape-hatch to avoid the consequences of disobedience,” asserts AU’s brief. “Such a system would impede the military’s efforts to address valid accommodation requests, invite belated and dubious RFRA claims, and overwhelm the courts-martial with demands for strict judicial scrutiny. Doubts would then arise about the genuineness of all accommodation requests, undercutting the very values that RFRA was designed to protect. None of that would be good for religious freedom or military discipline.”
The brief for United States v. Sterling was written by Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Steven Gey Fellow Bradley Girard. Jewish Social Policy Action Network and People For the American Way Foundation joined in the brief.