Battle lines are forming over whether a Marine veteran's appeal for her religious freedom should be heard by the nation's highest military court.
In mid-July, 42 members of Congress called for the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces to hear former Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling's argument that her February 2014 court-martial should be overturned.
Signing onto an amicus brief — or independent legal opinion — filed by the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian advocacy group, the lawmakers Representatives joined a growing list of petitioners weighing in on whether Sterling was denied her religious rights or simply refusing to follow orders.
"Religious freedom doesn't stop just because you join the military," Michael Berry, Sterling's attorney, told Marine Corps Times. "Clearly Monifa Sterling was punished for refusing to remove a Bible verse."
Sterling was convicted, reduced in rank to E-1 and received a bad-conduct discharge for willfully disobeying a lawful order after she refused to take down a religious quote she had posted in her workplace. Her conviction was upheld by the Navy-Marine Court of Appeals in this February.
Sterling appealed in May to the military high court, claiming her free speech rights were violated under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the government cannot restrict an individual's religious activities without providing a good reason.
Yet both the government and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation disagree. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an independent advocate of religious rights for American service members, claimed Sterling clearly violated legal orders from her superiors and asked that the court not hear the case.
"This is a case about conduct, not speech," the foundation claimed in an amicus brief filed with the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in late June. "It is a case about misconduct, not the 'Free Exercise' of religion."
Even if Sterling was exercising free religious speech — an argument she did not make at her initial court-martial, but only in her first appeal — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not applicable in her case since she never asked for, or was denied, accommodation for her religious practices, according to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma, followed by Nevada, Arizona, South Carolina and West Virginia, petitioned the high court to hear the case, Tulsa World reported.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt argued in the state's amicus brief filed with the court last month that the Navy-Marine Court of Appeals misinterpreted the act on religious freedom, claiming that the "court failed to recognize that Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides greater protection to people of faith than the First Amendment."
Whereas the First Amendment only provides the basis for religious liberty, Religious Freedom Restoration Act should protect Sterling whether or not she asked for accommodation, according to the state of Oklahoma: what matters are Sterling's "subjective and personal reasons" for placing the quotes around her desk.
The brief also defended Sterling's actions with passages from the Bible.
Sterling worked in an administrative position at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in May 2013, handling Common Access Card complaints from fellow Marines.
She taped a Bible passage in three places around her desk to help her deal with their frustrations: "no weapon formed against me shall prosper."
Sterling's superior, a Marine staff sergeant with whom she had a "contentious relationship" prior to the issue, ordered her to take the signs down, according to court records.
The staff sergeant took the signs down and threw them out, and Sterling printed out a new set to tape up.
For this and three other incidents in which she refused orders, Sterling was court-martialed and convicted.
When Sterling appealed the conviction, the Navy-Marine Court of Appeals agreed that the staff sergeant's orders to remove the signs had a valid military purpose because they risked having a negative impact on morale or discipline.
But for Sterling, posting the signs was simply employing her faith in response to what she considered harassment by fellow Marines.
She enlisted the aid of Michael Berry and the Liberty Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving religious freedom in America, and filed a subsequent appeal with Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
"We were shocked and stunned that [the court found] RFRA didn't apply," Berry said. "It was clearly a religious act: it's hard to imagine posting Bible scripture could not be seen as a religious act."
They argued in their petition that Sterling's right to display the signs were protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the same law which retailer Hobby Lobby used last year to gain exemption from national health care law requiring companies to cover contraception for their employees.
The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has yet to announce whether it will even hear Sterling's case, which has attracted significant attention in the wake of the Hobby Lobby ruling.
"It's hard to predict what [Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces] will do," said Zachary Spilman, a military law expert and lead contributor to the military justice blog CAAFlog.
"The court will grant review if it believes that the law is unclear […] and if it believes that the Sterling case provides a good opportunity to clarify the law," Spilman said.
Although Department of Defense regulations specifically allow service members to request accommodation of religious practices, Sterling never requested such an accommodation, Spilman noted.
"Ultimately, CAAF might see this case as more about a junior Marine's dislike of her command environment than about freedom of religion," Spilman said.