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Military high court to hear Marine vet's religious freedom case

November 9, 2015 (Photo Credit: Wynona Benson Photography/Liberty Institute)

A Marine veteran court-martialed for failing to remove a Bible verse at work when ordered her to do so by a superior is on track to plead her case at the military's highest court.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has agreed to hear a case about whether former Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling was denied her religious freedom or disobeying orders when she refused to remove a religious quote from her workplace in May 2013.

The court has not yet set a specific date, but legal experts say it could be as soon as 30 days to 60 days.

Since her February 2014 conviction, military courts have consistently found that the order legitimately served to preserve morale and discipline.

Yet Sterling appealed up the legal chain that her free speech rights were violated under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — the same law retailer Hobby Lobby used last year for exemption from national health care law requiring companies to cover contraception for their employees.

"Our Marines give up many freedoms when serving, but religious freedom is never one of them," Mike Berry, military affairs director with the legal organization representing Sterling, the Liberty Institute, said in a statement. "We are grateful the court took the case and we are hopeful for a favorable ruling for our client."

Sterling will now have to successfully argue that she was exercising religious freedom, that her superior infringed upon it, and that he had a "compelling government interest" to do so, according to the court's grant of review.

She must also convince the court that the order to remove the signs did not have a "valid military purpose."

This second issue is more clear-cut, according to Zach Spilman, a military law expert and lead contributor to the military justice blog CAAFlog.

"Was she disobeying a lawful order? The legality of the order is really a question of law," he said.

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Former Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling
Photo Credit: Wynona Benson Photography/Liberty Institute

If the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces agrees with lower courts' rulings against Sterling, Spilman said she will have another option: the U.S. Supreme Court. Aside from death penalty cases, denial by the military's highest court is the only occasion in which a service member may appeal to the civilian legal system.

The case has attracted national attention since Sterling appealed to the high court last May.

In July, 42 members of Congress signed onto an amicus brief — an independent legal opinion — filed by the conservative Christian advocacy group American Center for Law and Justice, joining a large list of petitioners arguing that the Marine was denied her religious rights.

Others disagree, such as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which claimed in a separate amicus brief filed with the court in June that the case was strictly about Sterling's violation of a legal order.

The court will decide on the case once it considers a formal brief filed by Sterling, along with any other amicus briefs, Spilman said. The decision may come as soon as 30 to 60 days, he said.

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