Marine Fighting for Right to Post Bible Verses in Violation of Direct Orders

A woman discharged from the Marine Corps for violating multiple direct orders is fighting to the highest military court.

A woman discharged from the Marine Corps for violating multiple direct orders is fighting to the highest military court.

Military Times (“Bible verse sends former Marine back to court“):

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.

[…]

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.

I don’t see how Hobby Lobby applies here. Sterling was not only a government employee, rather than the private citizen running a public accommodation, but a uniformed member of the armed forces. Government employees have substantially less expressive right in the workplace than is typical in the private sector, simply because our expression might be construed as government policy. Military personnel have more restrictions still because of the need for “good order and discipline.” There’s a long history of case law in support of these principles.

Sterling’s case gets even less complicated given that she was repeatedly ordered by her superiors to take down the verses. If she believed her staff sergeant’s order was illegal, she had every right to appeal it up the chain of command or even write her Congressman. She had no right at all to ignore it, let alone defy it repeatedly and brazenly.

This is sufficiently clear cut that I wouldn’t be surprised at all if court decided not to take the appeal at all.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Military Affairs, Quick Takes, Religion
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mark Ivey says:

    ” If she believed her staff sergeant’s order was illegal, she had every right to appeal it up the chain of command or even write her Congressman.”

    Alas, this Lance Cpl decided that “Gods law” overrides UCMJ………

  2. Scott says:

    Regardless of the legal issues here, this has all the hallmarks of supervisor- subordinate conflict above and beyond. I get hints of personality conflict (the boss ripping signs off the desk, kind of unprofessional), stubborn and defiant subordinate, possible malinger (medical issues at a desk job?), unprofessionalism( signs that denigrate her customers), etc. It is hard to believe this escalated into court-martial. There must have been a lot more going on and the religious issues are the least of them.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mark Ivey: She was just following Huckabee’s lead.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    What a disgrace. Marine’s are supposed to be ready to obey orders to fight to the last man. And this idiot can’t manage to obey an order regarding office decorations?

  5. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: Yes, but…. Jesus!

  6. Franklin says:

    @Scott: I get that sense, too, from the information provided here. Still, the case seems pretty straightforward with the active defiance.

  7. @Scott:

    signs that denigrate her customers

    How does that quote denigrate her customers?

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Stormy Dragon: As an atheist, I suppose I could take offense to it. Instead, I like to give them a Bible quote to ponder:

    Matthew 6:6- But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

  9. @OzarkHillbilly:

    Someone can take offense to anything. My question remains how it “denigrates” you?

    It doesn’t disparage other religions or lack of religion. It doesn’t even say anything explicitly religious. It claims the opposing forces are going to lose, which hardly seems like a shocking statement for someone in the marines.

  10. Gustopher says:

    There’s a whole lot more going on here than a few Bible verses.

    Whether she is being forcibly shoved out, and deliberately antagonized until she finally does something that gives them cause, or whether she is just a horrible employee, or both… Bible verses are not the root problem.

    I would not be surprised to learn that she has a medical condition, and that this is her supervisor retaliating over her exercising her rights under the ADA if it is permanent (although I would have expected a medical discharge), or her following her doctor’s advice to not do X if it is temporary.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    My question remains how it “denigrates” you?

    Obviously enough you are not an atheist who has engaged in discussions of any kind with the overly religious. They wear their superiority like a sheild: “I’m not better than you, just saved.” She’s quoting the f’ing Bible. Don’t break your arm trying to twist an argument around that pretzel.

  12. @OzarkHillbilly:

    Agnostic, leaning atheist. But it’s perfectly possible to be atheist and not completely freak out due to the mere existence of Christians.

    If Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling had put up a sign saying “I’m not better than you, just saved”, then yes, THAT would be denigrating her customers. But that’s not what her sign said. The fact you’re holding her responsible for conversations you’ve had with completely unrelated people pretty much my point. You’re offense is a result of your personal hang ups about religion, not because there’s anything inherently denigrating about the quote.

  13. Franklin says:

    @Stormy Dragon: The article says that “the posted passage helped her summon patience when dealing with short-tempered Marines.” I’m trying to see how the Bible passage applies, but if it means the short-tempered Marines won’t prosper, then it would be denigrating her customers (in my opinion).

  14. DrDaveT says:

    “The risk that such exposure could impact the morale or discipline of the command is not slight,”

    Wow. Who knew that USMC morale and discipline were that fragile?

    That’s not to defend the actions of Private Sterling, who really ought to know that if your CO tells you to take down a sign, you take down the sign.

  15. JohnMcC says:

    Dr Joyner, since it’s been some 45 yrs since the blessed day I left active duty and joined what Tom Lehrer called the ‘radioactive reserve’, perhaps you could tell us whether this case has any way of crossing over to the ‘civilian’ courts or whether it could become a media circus while in the military justice system (cough, cough).

  16. Gene says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Of course, the context of that verse is completely different from what you seem to think. It was spoken directly to the Pharisees, who made a practice of praying loud and ostentatiously on street corners to show off their supposed piety. This Marine was doing nothing of the sort.

  17. C. Clavin says:

    What is it about zealots that they can’t keep their beliefs to themselves, and not force them on others? Freedom of Religion is not the freedom to pummel others with your silly superstitions.
    I mean…on one hand it’s useful because it tips you off that you aren’t dealing with the sharpest knife in the drawer. But If I wanted to spend my day inundated with fairy tales then I would have become a Disney animator.

  18. @C. Clavin:

    What is it about zealots that they can’t keep their beliefs to themselves, and not force them on others?

    I’m suddenly reminded of the homophobe who demands I not hold hands with another guy because I’m “rubbing it in his face”.

  19. KM says:

    I’m wondering why Sterling decided this was a battle that needed fighting. So she needs a motivational to get her through an emotionally trying job? Fine. She needs it to be religious in nature? Approaching the line but doable (maybe a toy sword to remind her of “weapon formed”?). She needs that specific quote to get her through with a specific config to explicitly remind her of the Trinity so much so she’s willing to disobey direct orders repeatedly? WTF lady why

    It sounds like she made the completely irrational decision to fight her boss about her desk setup when there were so many options and variations available to meet her needs it’s not funny. She had to have it her way and when told it wasn’t going to happen, dug in her heels and lost her job over nothing. She could have gone with Grumpy Cat, she could have gotten a statue/pic that exemplified the thought without explicitly stating it, she could have put up a number cypher that gives that verse number, she could have done so many things other then piss off the boss and disobey a direct order. A damned quote is not worth your job.

  20. C. Clavin says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Not a big fan of PDA of any variety…but I get your point.
    There is,however, an obvious difference between a sexual orientation over which you have no choice…biology…and religion which is a choice to believe in mythology.

  21. DrDaveT says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    How does that quote denigrate her customers?

    Referring to the customer (or the customer’s behavior) as “a weapon formed against me” seems pretty derogatory to me. It certainly does not reflect best practices for customer service.

  22. ernieyeball says:

    What is it about zealots that they can’t keep their beliefs to themselves,..

    Synonyms for zealot. Pick one.
    fanatic, enthusiast, extremist, radical, young Turk, diehard, true believer, activist, militant; bigot, dogmatist, sectarian, partisan; informal fiend, maniac, ultra, nut; eager beaver.

  23. DrDaveT says:

    @C. Clavin:

    What is it about zealots that they can’t keep their beliefs to themselves, and not force them on others?

    Would you even have recognized that sentence as a biblical allusion, if it hadn’t been pointed out to you?

    I feel pretty much the way you do about forcing one’s religion on others — but this one doesn’t look at all to me like forcing one’s religion on others. The situation here would be no different at all if the quotation posted on the tower had been from The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, or How to Win Friends and Influence People, or Winnie-the-Pooh.

  24. Tillman says:

    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.

    Leaving aside all the religious implications (of which there seem to be none proper; recall this isn’t even correct scripture but a variant of Isaiah 57:14, which reads in the RSV: “And it shall be said, ‘Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.'”), this is poor workplace etiquette. She probably got more complaints from other marines working there than people complaining about access card failures, and needlessly since she could’ve made something in her own time that was portable and didn’t require altering a shared workplace.

    But then I suppose she would’ve needed to make three such doodads, and that’s too much work just to honor the most Holy Trinity. Better to alter the workplace to suit one’s (and only one’s) needs. That’s fairly common practice by a bunch of stubborn assholes.

  25. michael reynolds says:

    This has nothing to do with religion or free speech. She is a Marine, she is not free. She received a legitimate order. If she cannot follow a legitimate order then she needs to get out of the Marine Corps because a soldier who will not follow orders is a waste of space and frankly dangerous. I don’t care if her CO told her to do the chicken dance, soldiers follow orders, period.

  26. stonetools says:

    Generally, I lean toward religious freedom a lot more than most folks here ( who tend to denigrate religions as “fairy tales” and religious folks as “fools”) . But really, she doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on.
    I agree here with Scott. A lot more here is happening than posting verses on a computer. Generally, you can post any darned quote on your work computer you want, and so long as its not obscene or profane, your supervisor doesn’t care.
    I think it should been handled a lot better, and I have a feeling the supervisor is going to be reassigned in the near future to something non-supervisory.

  27. stonetools says:

    I don’t see how Hobby Lobby applies here.

    Remember when Ginsburg was objecting to Hobby Lobby , and Alito responded in effect , “Don’t worry your pretty little head about Hobby Lobby, there will be hardly any litigation generated by it, the parade of horribles will never happen? ”
    Well, somewhere Ginsburg is smiling mirthlessly, as evangelicals everywhere prepare to march on the courts testing out every possible variation of a Hobby Lobby claim. And it will serve the conservative majority right.

  28. J-Dub says:

    Seems like this could have been handled with a pillowcase and a few of bars of soap.

  29. @stonetools:

    My personal stance is that religious people are people who believe in fairy tails, but as long as they “neither break my arm nor pick my pocket”, they should be allowed to do so if that’s what makes them happy.

    I’m not familiar with military law enough to offer an opinion on what the outcome of this particular workcase, but if this were in a normal office environment, the quote in question seems so milquetoast I don’t have a problem with it. Getting worked over it seems like the equivalent of throwing a fit over a Dilbert cartoon.

  30. Mikey says:

    @Stormy Dragon: The verse wouldn’t have bothered me, either, but in this case the opinion that matters is that of the Marine’s chain of command, and they ordered her to remove it. At that point she had two valid choices: to take the matter further up the chain and assert a violation of her rights (which, as a member of the military, she should already have known are circumscribed more closely than those of a civilian) or to obey the order and remove the verse.

    Rather than choose one of these, she chose to disobey the order. That, along with other misconduct not specified in the news story, led her command to charge her with offenses sufficient to warrant a court-martial. That she received a reduction of two steps in rank plus a bad conduct discharge tells me as a 20-year military veteran that there was a whole lot more going on than taping a Bible verse on her office cube.

  31. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    This has nothing to do with religion or free speech. She is a Marine, she is not free. She received a legitimate order. If she cannot follow a legitimate order then she needs to get out of the Marine Corps because a soldier who will not follow orders is a waste of space and frankly dangerous.

    Dead on, exactly right.

    Still, even if that was not in play, I wonder: Would a marine get “freedom of religion” or “Hobby Lobby” support from Christian evangelicals if he/she posted verses from the Quran?

  32. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Well, technically I’d say they only follow *legal* orders. And personally I wish a few more service members had refused to follow certain orders issued at Gitmo on those grounds.

    That said, I don’t think there’s anything illegal about her boss ordering her to clean up or not display something at her desk. Certainly happens in the civilian world.

  33. Ian says:

    Non-religious man (it’s complicated) here. I definitely agrees that the Marine should have just obeyed the orders. And by definition, in the military, your freedoms, your rights, your happy behind in general belongs to Uncle Sam. So it’s pretty open and shut. She disobeyed, she paid the price.

    But personally, I’m not offended by the quote, and the majority of the people I’ve known in the military of different religious and personal stripes wouldn’t be. It’s nothing to worked up about, and it strikes me as a little Dilbert-esque to get venomous about it.

  34. ernieyeball says:

    @Ian:..Non-religious man (it’s complicated) here.

    Let me simplify it for U…There is no god.

    ernieyeball.
    sees all,
    knows all,
    doesn’t think much of any of it.