The Case of Monifa Sterling: How to Turn a Bad Marine into a Persecuted Christian

01/20/2016 09:47 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2017

In February 2014, Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling was convicted by a court-martial of violating a number of articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Sterling was reduced to the rank of E-1 and received a bad conduct discharge from the Marines.

The charges against Sterling resulted from several separate, unrelated incidents over the course of five months. These incidents included failing to go to her appointed place of duty, disrespecting a commissioned officer, and disobeying direct orders from her superiors to wear the proper uniform. These incidents had nothing to do with religion or religious freedom.

The most serious of the charges that Sterling was found guilty of were her failing to go to her appointed place of duty, and her disrespecting of a commissioned officer in relation to that incident. 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. The disrespecting of a commissioned officer occurred a few days before the Sunday on which Sterling was assigned to be on duty giving out the passes. Sterling refused to take the passes from the major who was trying to give them to her, an incident witnessed by a first sergeant who, when asked at the court-martial to describe Sterling's behavior towards the major, said it was "the most disrespectful thing [he] had witnessed from a Marine of junior rank" to a commissioned officer in his over eighteen years of service.

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.

There was also a third incident, in which Sterling refused to obey an order to remove signs on which were printed her interpretation of a Bible verse that she had put up in her work space. At her court-martial, Sterling was also found guilty of refusing to obey this order.

Of all the charges that Sterling was found guilty of at her court-martial, the charge of disobeying the order to remove the signs was not the most serious of the charges brought against her. In fact, as the transcript of the court-martial shows, the Bible verse incident received the least amount of attention at the court-martial. But now, thanks to the propaganda from fundamentalist Christian organizations and the right wing media, Sterling's case has been turned into a case of outrageous Christian persecution. Anyone reading articles about this case on the internet would think that Sterling is a poor, persecuted Christian who was court-martialed for nothing more than posting a Bible verse on her desk.

An article from the Washington Times, for example, titled "High military court will hear case of Marine punished for displaying Bible verse," begins: "The highest U.S. military court will hear the case of a Marine who was punished for refusing to remove a Bible verse from her workstation."

According to Fox News, in an article titled "Marine court-martialed for refusing to remove Bible verse," "The plight of Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling seems unbelievable -- a member of the Armed Forces criminally prosecuted for displaying a slightly altered passage of Scripture from the Old Testament: "No weapon formed against me shall prosper."

Even the articles that do acknowledge that there were other charges against Sterling do so in a way that gives the impression these other charges, which had nothing at all to do with her signs, somehow resulted from her refusal to remove the signs.

The Daily Caller, for example, in an article titled "High Court Agrees To Hear Appeal Of Marine Discharged For Refusing To Remove Bible Verses," presents it like this: "Sterling's staff sergeant demanded she remove the verse but she wouldn't. The next day Sterling arrived at her station to find the verses ripped down, so she put them up again. This cycle repeated, and soon Sterling was court-martialed. She was convicted of disrespecting a superior commissioned officer, failing to go to an appointed place of duty, as well as disobeying a lawful order on four different specifications."

Sterling, who decided to represent herself during her court-martial, has already appealed her case once and lost, with the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals affirming the judgment of the court-martial, as well as her sentence.

But now Sterling is being represented by the Liberty Institute, and the highest court in the military, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, has granted a review of the case.

As you can see if you read the Liberty Institute's description of the case, there is no mention at all of the other, more serious charges that Sterling was found guilty of. The sole ground on which the Liberty Institute is appealing Sterling's case is that she had the right to post her signs under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and that the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals was wrong in its decision that Sterling's actions were not protected by the RFRA. For a detailed explanation of why the RFRA does not apply to Sterling's case, see the amicus brief filed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF).

But, the question of whether of not Sterling's actions were protected by the RFRA aside, here's the bigger question. What, exactly, does the Liberty Institute hope to accomplish by making its appeal solely about Sterling's signs? As already explained, Sterling's refusal to obey the order to remove these signs was just one of several charges she was found guilty of, and it wasn't even the most serious of the charges. Making the case all about these signs might work to turn Sterling into their new poster child for Christian persecution in the media, but does the Liberty Institute seriously think that by making its appeal only about the Bible verse issue is going to make the other charges that Sterling was found guilty of just magically go away? That the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces is just going to forget about Sterling's failure to go to her appointed place of duty, her disrespecting of a commissioned officer, and her refusing to obey the orders of her superiors to wear the proper uniform. Even without the charges resulting from Sterling's refusal to remove her signs, she would certainly still have been court-martialed and found guilty of these other charges. And, by failing to appeal the other convictions to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, Sterling's "counsel" has waived any legal arguments or defenses she may have had regarding her other convictions, making those convictions now final.

With the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces having agreed to review Sterling's case, the Liberty Institute is now, of course, bolstering its case with amicus briefs from various supporters in its fight against this outrageous example of alleged persecution of Christians in the military. This would be nothing of note if it weren't for who one of these amicus briefs came from -- a group of nine retired military generals, most of whom were known for blatantly disregarding military regulations themselves when they were on active duty.

One of these nine retired generals is Maj. Gen. Jack Catton, Jr., who in 2007 was found by the DoD Inspector General to be in violation of the DoD Joint Ethics regulations regarding endorsement of non-federal entities by his participation in uniform at the Pentagon in a 2004 promotional fundraising video for the fundamentalist Christian organization Christian Embassy. And even before that investigation had gotten underway, General Catton was the subject of another inquiry for having used his official email account to send out fundraising emails for Bentley Rayburn, a political candidate running for Congress in 2006, not only blatantly disregarding DoD regulations on endorsing political candidates, but saying in his emails that "we are certainly in need of Christian men with integrity and military experience in Congress."

Another is Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who was admonished by the Bush administration in 2003 for his speaking in churches in uniform, delivering Christian supremacist speeches in which he made virulently anti-Muslim remarks and painted the War on Terror as a holy war.

Another is Brig. Gen. Richard Abel, a former executive director of Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry, an organization whose stated goal is to transform our military into a force of "government-paid missionaries," and whose "God's Basic Training" program teaches recruits in Army basic training that "The Military = 'God's Ministers'" and that one of their responsibilities as a soldier is "To punish those who do evil" as "God's servant, an angel of wrath."

And then there's Maj. Gen. Cecil Richardson, the former Chief of Chaplains of the Air Force, who was quoted in the New York Times back in 2005 as saying that Air Force chaplains "reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched," and then, when asked in an Air Force Times interview, "Say a Christian chaplain is visited by a troubled airman who isn't interested in hearing about religion. Do you trust your chaplains to advise that airman without steering him toward Jesus?," Maj. Gen. Richardson began his answer, "Well, you know, sometimes Jesus is what they need. They're asking for it. ..."

And, on top of the record of prior disregard for military regulations among this group of retired generals, their use of their positions as retired generals to even file their amicus brief in this case violates the Standards of Conduct for retired military officers, as explained in this Standards of Conduct complaint filed by MRFF.

Incredibly, among the arguments in the nine general's brief is the claim that Monifa Sterling did nothing wrong because service members must swear an oath to God. Seriously, these generals are actually arguing that the phrase "So help me God" being at the end of military oaths -- a phrase that is not only not required because of the Constitution's "no religious test" clause, but has been the source of numerous complaints itself when service members were unconstitutionally forced to say these words -- is a reason that Sterling's disobeying of an order to remove her signs was OK!

From the generals' brief:

"Finally, it is incongruous that service members should swear with God's aid to support and defend the Constitution, but be deprived of basic exercises of religion like displaying a favorite religious text in a personal workspace."

"Enlistees and officers are required to take an oath to 'support and defend the Constitution' and invoke God's aid to fulfill their oath."

"It is all the more problematic to prevent a military member from exercising his or her own religious beliefs when the oath he or she is required to take to join the military invokes God's very aid."

And even more outrageous is one of the examples the nine generals use to make their irrelevant point that "the desire to express or live out one's religious beliefs, which initially spurs the decision of a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine to join the military, often grows and intensifies as military service continues." The outrageous example they use is Jeffrey Struecker, writing:

A few specific examples illustrate this. For instance, Jeffrey Struecker was one of the Army Rangers who fought in the firefight memorialized in the movie, Black Hawk Down. He credits his faith in God with his ability to return to the firefight to check on the status of the downed helicopter.

Why is the example of Jeffrey Struecker so outrageous? Well, because Struecker's admitted tactic for evangelizing as a Ranger chaplain was to take advantage of the soldiers in Ranger training, waiting until they were so worn down by a lack of food and sleep that they would be easier to convert, as can be seen in the video below (beginning at the 2:50 mark):

Yes, this is what these nine retired generals who are now defending Monifa Sterling's behavior consider to be a great example in support of their argument that unrestricted religious expression is good for the military -- a chaplain who would deliberately prey on soldiers who are so tired and hungry that they don't have the energy to resist, proudly saying of his reprehensible evangelizing tactic:

"My goal is to meet them when they're at their absolute worst -- when they're coldest and the most tired and the most hungry that they're gonna be -- because the more difficult the circumstances, the more receptive the average person becomes to issues of faith."

Will Monifa Sterling win her appeal? That remains to be seen. But Sterling needs to be seen as what she is -- a bad Marine who was court-martialed for committing a number of violations of military regulations, not the Liberty Institute's latest Christian persecution poster child.