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Ex-Marine fighting court martial over displaying Bible verse at work
Former U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling is appealing her court martial and bad-conduct discharge after refusing to remove a paraphrased Bible verse from her work area. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
A Marine, given a bad conduct discharge for refusing to remove a Bible verse she displayed at her desk, is fighting the dismissal on religious freedom grounds.

Monifa Sterling, at the time a lance corporal at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, was convicted of "failing to go to an appointed place of duty, disrespecting a superior commissioned officer and four specifications of disobeying a lawful order," according to the website.

Her sentence included a reduction in rank to private and a bad-conduct discharge, which makes her ineligible for veteran's benefits, the report stated.

Sterling worked at Camp Lejeune helping other Marines who had difficulties with their Common Access Cards, a smart chip-enabled I.D. card used throughout the Department of Defense. According to the Military Times, an independent newspaper, Sterling posted a paraphrase of a Bible verse on her computer monitor, tower and desk, to help "summon patience when dealing with short-tempered Marines who were frustrated with their CAC problems."

Using Isaiah 57:14, she printed the words "No weapon formed against me shall prosper," and told military officials the three posted copies reflected the Trinity. However, the newspaper reported, "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."

This led, to the "disobeying a lawful order" charges and the court martial. Sterling's appeal of the verdict to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeals was denied. According to the Liberty Institute, a public interest law firm that represents Sterling, the Marine "cited her First Amendment rights to religious expression, as well as her protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)."

During her appeal, Judge D.C. King of the appeals court said that because Sterling's desk was shared with a co-worker and her workspace was visible to those coming to her for assistance, displaying a paraphrased Bible verse could be disruptive.

"It is not hard to imagine the divisive impact to good order and discipline that may result when a service member is compelled to work at a government desk festooned with religious quotations, especially if that service member does not share that religion," King wrote.

Sterling and her new attorneys dispute King's opinion.

"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," Liberty Institute military affairs director Mike Berry said in a statement. "Restricting a Marines free exercise of religion is blatantly unconstitutional."

Berry cited a 2009 Department of Defense instruction on religious expression, revised last year, as support for Sterling's claim. The policy reads, in part, "The DoD places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all. It protects the civil liberties of its personnel and the public to the greatest extent possible, consistent with its military requirements."

According to the PilotOnline report, Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a group that "regularly advocates for keeping religion out of the military," says the Marina Corps made the right call in bringing Sterling to trial.

"We are a secular nation, and particularly so in the U.S. military," Weinstein said.
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