The Supreme Court refused yesterday to review Sterling v. United States, a decision by the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces threatening the religious liberties of 1.4 million Americans in uniform.
The Sterling case exemplifies why joining the military during the Obama era was a bad idea for Christians – and might still be. In 2013, a Marine sergeant told Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling that “I don’t like those. I don’t like their tone” and ordered her to “take that s**t off your desk or remove it or take it down.”
The sergeant was referring to small pieces of paper with the words of Isaiah 54:17 (“No weapon formed against me shall prosper”) written on them. Sterling had taped them to her work computer as a “mental reminder” of her faith. She refused her sergeant’s orders to remove them, leading to her being court-martialed and receiving a bad-conduct discharge. The judge presiding over the court-martial rejected Sterling’s argument that she was protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces affirmed. In so doing, the military court differentiated between religiously compelled actions and ones that are religiously motivated. According to the court, only actions compelled by faith, e.g., a Catholic abstaining from eating meat on Lent, deserve legal protection. Actions that are merely motivated by faith, such as taping a Bible verse onto a computer in one’s office, are not protected.
If this compelled-versus-motivated rule stands, it will gut the religious rights of servicemen and women. As Sterling’s attorneys noted:
Are Christians compelled to read the Bible, or is reading the Bible merely ‘motivated by faith? Is an action taken in conformance with the Ten Commandments religiously compelled – they are ‘commands,’ after all, – or religiously motivated?
That which faith compels is often in the eye of the beholder. And when the beholders are faith-hating military prosecutors or staff sergeants who regard Bible verses as “s**t,” religious acts qualifying as “compelled” – and thus protected – will be few and far between.
With the stroke of a pen, President Trump could order the armed forces to provide military personnel the same protection under RFRA as civilians. Trump owes them nothing less, particularly since it was his Justice Department, not Obama’s, that filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to affirm the military court’s outrageous ruling.*
Additionally, Congress can modify RFRA to grant service members the same religious rights as civilians.** In 1993, RFRA was passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress (almost unanimously) and signed by a Democrat president. We’ll see just how far we’ve slouched towards Gomorrah, in Robert Bork’s words, if two decades later a Republican-controlled Congress and White House are unwilling to extend fully those same rights to all Americans, including those in the military.
Discerning what faith compels is the task of an ecclesiastical court, not a court-martial. Americans who risk their lives should enjoy the same right to engage in religious activities as the civilians they protect, regardless of whether those activities are “compelled” by faith or merely motivated by it.
* Trump might also want to consider that Judge Margaret Ryan, who is on his SCOTUS shortlist, authored the Sterling decision.
** This would be a great opportunity for a certain newly minted congressman from Montana who has spent decades (and considerable sums) supporting the Body of Christ to do so again by sponsoring an amendment to RFRA.