If you’re looking for the story of what happened with Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling, you’re going to hear different versions of it depending on which sources you read.
Here’s a Christian version of the story, as summarized by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty:
In 2014, Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling was ordered to remove from her workstation three pieces of paper with a paraphrase from the Book of Isaiah, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper,” even though co-workers were permitted to keep nonreligious messages on their desks. She declined and was court-martialed. A lower court upheld Sterling’s court martial, rejecting her argument that her faith was protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Sounds harsh, right? Why would the military flip out over some strips of paper with paraphrased Bible verses on them?
Simple: That’s not what happened. Or, at least, that’s not the whole story.
As Chris Rodda documented so thoroughly, Sterling had a habit of not following orders. The Bible verse debacle was merely the last straw.
For instance, there was the time she refused go to her appointed place of duty:
Sterling was assigned the duty of giving out passes to family members visiting Marines who had just returned from a deployment. This duty was to be for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. Sterling claimed that she couldn’t perform this duty because she was on medication for migraines that made her drowsy, but, as the court-martial found, there was no reason that this medication would have interfered with Sterling performing this duty if she took it at night as prescribed. But, as Sterling admitted, she was not planning to take her medication as prescribed on that Sunday. She was planning to take it earlier. Her reason? She was going to church and the loud choir at the church service might bring on a migraine. Seriously, that was her excuse — that she planned to take her medication not as prescribed. Needless to say, this excuse didn’t work.
There was also the time she wouldn’t wear her uniform:
Sterling’s defense for the charges against her regarding her disobeying direct orders to wear the proper uniform was also a medical excuse. Sterling claimed that she had a medical order, referred to as a “chit,” saying that she did not have to wear a particular uniform because of a medical device she needed to wear for a back problem. But when her superiors checked this out, they found it not to be true, and that there was no reason that Sterling couldn’t be in the “uniform of the day” like everybody else. Much of the court-martial was focused on this issue of Sterling’s medical “chit,” and the finding was that it did not excuse her from refusing to obey the orders of her superiors to change into the proper uniform.
And it’s true she was told to remove the paraphrased Bible verses from her workspace, an order she didn’t obey, but there’s more to that story.
1) Sterling shared the desk with another junior Marine. It wasn’t just her personal space.
2) Because the verses were paraphrased, it wasn’t clear they were referencing the Bible. Out of context, they seemed “combative in tone,” and that’s why she was asked to remove them.
3) It wasn’t until mid-trial that anyone even mentioned the religious connotations. So when her superior officer removed the signs, it was done without any knowledge of their biblical significance. Sterling never made that clear, nor did she request a religious accommodation that could have allowed the signs to stay put.
The military court judges made all of this very clear in their ruling yesterday:
Appellant [Sterling] has nonetheless failed to identify the sincerely held religious belief that made placing the signs important to her exercise of religion or how the removal of the signs substantially burdened her exercise of religion in some other way. We decline Appellant’s invitation to conclude that any interference at all with a religiously motivated action constitutes a substantial burden, particularly where the claimant did not bother to either inform the government that the action was religious or seek an available accommodation.
The sole dissenting judge even noted that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Sterling used in her defense, couldn’t automatically apply in every situation, even if he felt it was correct here:
RFRA does not give members of the military carte blanche to do whatever they please, whenever they please, simply because they cloak their actions in the garb of religion.
What’s important to note is that the Bible issue wasn’t the deal breaker. In fact, when Sterling was court-martialed, it was the least discussed part of the case.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces was right to dismiss Sterling’s claims of religious persecution:
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, applauded the court’s decision today.
“Our military can’t function effectively when service-members like Monifa Sterling repeatedly break the rules,” Lynn said. “She received the appropriate punishment for her actions, and the Court of Appeals for the Armed Services protected both the integrity of RFRA and military justice in its verdict today.”
Sterling wasn’t given a “bad-conduct discharge” because she was a Christian. If that happened, our military would be decimated. She was punished for not obeying orders. She did it multiple times even if you ignore the Bible verse incident. And even that Bible verse incident had nothing to do with the Bible.
Keep all that in mind when you see Christian websites talking about this case. Do they mention all the other details, or do they just point out, as the misleading headlines do, that she was punished for her faith? Because that’s a lie. And as we know very well, conservative Christians are all-too-happy to lie in the name of Jesus.
(Image via Wynona Benson Photography/Courtesy of First Liberty Institute)