Court-Martialed for a Bible Verse?

The story goes that one innocent Marine posted a Bible Verse in her work area and was court-martialed. It would be offensive to us atheists if a military person were court-martialed simply for posting Bible verses, even in their own work space. So we now rush to get more information and potentially even to help this persecuted Christian.

tl;dr: There was a lot more going on than posting Bible verses and posting the photos seemed more about insubordination than religious exercise. But for the record, we hope that for the most part in personal workspaces, personnel can have modest personal, religious or otherwise, messages and items.
Don’t believe the hype, read the sworn testimony: Official Navy Appellate Brief

DoD photo by CW2 Middleton, OIF2 An Najaf

DoD photo by CW2 Middleton, OIF2 An Najaf

Digging into this story a bit, we find that one former Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling has been convicted, reduced in rank, and discharged unfavorably from military service. The story going around the Christian Victimhood circles is that all she did was post a Bible verse in her work area. Looking at the actual military legal reports of the issue we find a bit more to the story: “failing to go to her appointed place of duty, disrespect towards a superior commissioned officer, and four specifications of disobeying the lawful order of a noncommissioned officer.” And further, that by her actions, she “was responsible for the misconduct and poor performance of other Marines”

This included missing duty because she on the excuse that she had a medical exemption and that she deferred medication in a way that would allow her to attend church but not work. She did not wear proper uniform despite very clear authorization to do so. Whatever the conclusion about these activities, it’s clear that there was more going on than a few workplace signs.

The messages are the real focus. She had three signs up which, each which held the quote to the effect that no weapon formed against her shall prosper. The order to remove them was considered by the court to be justified because, 1) “the workspace in which the accused placed the signs was shared by at least one other person” and 2) “that other service members come to [her] workspace.” Also the order was not burdensome because it ““did not interfere with the accused’s private rights or personal affairs.” Speaking of the protections of religious exercise afforded by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and their applicability to Bible-related signs in the workplace, the court said, “we reject the appellant’s invitation to define “religious exercise” as any action subjectively believed by the appellant to be “religious in nature.”” Very significant also is, “the appellant never told her [supervisor] that the signs had a religious connotation and never requested any religious accommodation to enable her to display the signs.”

Also from the ruling: “It is not hard to imagine the divisive impact to good order and discipline that may result when a service member is compelled to work at a government desk festooned with religious quotations, especially if that service member does not share that religion. The risk that such exposure could impact the morale or discipline of the command is not slight.”

The court recognized the danger of what MAAF would agree is a potentially chilling ruling that may bar religious or otherwise meaningful quotations and symbols in a semi-public workspace. (See note 19 in the judicial report.) MAAF hopes that all personnel feel free to post modest and positive quotations of personal significance, even if they are direct scriptural references. Having a personal connection at work is inspirational to the individual and should help build a team by building personal connections. However, wallpapering an office with religious symbology or having proselytizing, threatening, or denigrating quotations, scriptural or otherwise, is contrary to good order and discipline and should be prevented.

However, in this case, these signs were found by the court to have a primarily secular purpose and not a good one. Evidence showed that the former Lance Corporal was “locked in an antagonistic relationship with her superiors–a relationship surely visible to other Marines in the unit” and that by her own testimony she posted these signs, “to encourage her during those difficult times.” And the judge found, “the verbiage in these signs could be interpreted as combative.”

During the sentencing hearing, the appellant testified her command was “tired of me going to the IG . . . and writing letters to Congress, and request mast and, you know . . . submitting pictures of the barracks… ” And she has also said, she is not long for the Marine Corps one way or the other.

Whistleblower protections are important. If it were the case that she went to IG and called Congress for legitimate issues and suffered retaliation because of that, then leaders should be punished. Retaliation wasn’t alleged here, only that she did so frequently. Atheists have suffered negative repercussions from pointing out misconduct in their command. Jeremy Hall was an Army soldier holding a MAAF meeting in Iraq when a senior officer harassed him. His reporting of the incident eventually led to him being sent home for fear of retaliation from fellow soldiers and he quickly left the military. Wayne Adkins was an officer in the Ohio National Guard so fed up with promotion of Christianity in the command that he left the military. Blake Page was a cadet at West Point who declined to graduate due to lack of support from his command. In these cases, personnel tried very hard to work within the system, as MAAF members are always encouraged to do, but they found little support.

It seems that evidence in favor of the defendant in this case is amounts only to omissions by the legal teams involved. The legal reports mention that many points of law presented in the appeal are moot because they were not presented in the case or not presented at the time. This may be because they weren’t legitimate issues. In any case, for anyone who feels they may be having their rights violated, at least request specifically at the time an Free Exercise accommodation, including secular or humanist matters of conscience.

So, if you’d like to post something personal in your workspace, it should be respectful of others using the workspace, and also be positive, non-proselytizing, and non-threatening, as a general rule. MAAF hopes that throughout the military, personnel can get command (and co-worker) approval to post the exact Bible verse posted by Ms Sterling: “No weapons formed against me shall prosper.” We should always be able to be ourselves at work, our professional, respectful, but also authentic selves. So long as there are not those other aggravating circumstances, everything should be fine for Christians to be Christians, as it always has been.

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