October 2016 Church & State - October 2015

Federal Appeals Court Rules Marine’s Religious Freedom Rights Were Not Violated

  AU admin

A federal court that deals with military issues has rejected a former U.S. Marine’s claims that she was persecuted because of her religious beliefs.

Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling received a bad-conduct discharge from the Marine Corps in 2014 after a court-martial found she had repeatedly violated orders. According to her superiors, she neglected to report for duty and failed to wear the required uniform. She also posted three signs reading “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” at her official workstation, and she twice refused to take them down.

Sterling claimed that the signs were a biblical reference, although she did not inform anyone of that until her court-martial – six months after she was ordered to take the signs down. During her court-martial, Sterling claimed that posting the signs was an exercise of her right to religious freedom, as guaranteed by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and so the order to remove the signs was unlawful.

The officials who presided over the court-martial didn’t buy Sterling’s story, however, and she was convicted.

Sterling’s appeal produced the same result. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces said in August that her claims were not valid.

“Without question, a junior Marine in a contentious relationship with her superiors posting combative signs in the workplace could undermine good order and discipline,” the 4-1 ruling in United States v. Sterling said. “This is not the usual case where an individual or group sought accommodation for an exercise of religion and was denied. Nor is this a case where the practice at issue was either patently religious, such as wearing a hijab, or one where it was not but a government actor somehow knew the practice was religious and prohibited it on that basis.”

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case. In that brief, AU argued that officials with the Marines acted within their rights to punish Sterling for refusing to remove the signs.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, applauded the court’s decision.

“Our military can’t function effectively when service-members like Monifa Sterling repeatedly break the rules,” Lynn said in a media statement. 


Americans United & the National Women’s Law Center file suit to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans.

Abortion bans violate the separation of church and state. Americans United and the National Women’s Law Center—the leading experts in religious freedom and gender justice—have joined forces with thirteen clergy from six faith traditions to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans as unconstitutionally imposing one narrow religious doctrine on everyone.

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