United States v. Sterling

AU's Role: 
AU's Involvement Began: 
January 2016
Status: 

Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling defied her superior officers on multiple occasions. She refused to report to duty when ordered and refused to wear the required uniform. She also posted signs in her public workspace, where other Marines routinely came to receive support services, which stated: "No weapon formed against me shall prosper." When her supervisor ordered her to remove the signs, LCpl Sterling refused--twice--causing her superior officer to take the signs down herself. 

LCpl Sterling was thereafter court-martialed for insubordination. While on the stand at her trial, Sterling claimed, for the first time, that the signs she had posted were altered Bible verses. She was found guilty of six counts of misconduct and sentenced to a bad-conduct discharge. 

On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, Sterling has argued that her posting of the signs and subsequent refusals to remove them are religious conduct protected by the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). In January 2016, we filed an amicus brief on behalf of the government.  We argued that no substantial religious burden had been placed on LCpl Sterling's religious exercise because she had failed ask for a religious accommodation, as required by military rules. If LCpl Sterling were able to not ask for an accommodation, defy her superior officers, and then avoid punishment for that insubordination by claiming after the fact that she was motivated by religious beliefs, military discipline and religious freedom rights for military servicemembers would both suffer. 

The case was argued in April 2016. In August 2016, the Court, in the first appellate decision concerning the application of RFRA to the military, ruled in favor of the government, concluding that the government did not impose a substantial burden on Sterling’s religious beliefs when it ordered her to remove the signs from her workspace.  

In December 2016, Sterling asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Briefing has now completed, and we are waiting for the Court to decide whether it will hear the case.