Five military judges heard oral arguments Wednesday in the appeal of a U.S. Marine punished through a court-martial for refusing to remove bible verses from her workstation, and a retired general says the case could determine whether there really is religious freedom in the U.S. military.
Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling lost her original court case, as the court ruled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act did not apply to the the type of religious expression she was displaying and did not protect her from punishment for refusing to remove the verses.
A decision is expected this summer.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. General William “Jerry” Boykin was in the United State Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces for Wednesday’s oral arguments before the five-judge panel. Boykin says it’s likely to be a 3-2 decision.
“Two of them were supporting the actions of the Marine Corps. Two of them were supporting the defendant, Monifa Sterling. The chief judge held his cards very close to his chest. We came out thinking the decisive vote will be the chief judge,” said Boykin.
However the court rules, Boykin says it will reverberate throughout the military.
“If they uphold her appeal and she is exonerated on this, it’s a strong, strong message to all of the military that you must protect the religious rights of service members. On the other hand, if it is upheld and her special court-martial stands, I think it portends the situation in the military with regards to religious freedom is going to decline,” said Boykin.
In recent weeks, the military has shown a tendency to accommodate religious freedom. The U.S. Army is now permitting hijabs and turbans to be worn by service members. Boykin says that ruling shows the punishment aimed at Sterling shows selective application of religious freedom rights.
“I think it’s selective. I think if she had been anything other than a Christian this would have been one of those situations in which political correctness would have been the dominant factor. Because she’s a Christian, I think they feel very comfortable infringing on her first amendment rights,” said Boykin.
He points out service members do give up a few rights when joining the military, like the right to publicly identify with political candidates or publicly criticize the commander-in-chief. But he says the Bill of Rights is fully intact for everyone in uniform.
“What it does not require you to do is sacrifice your first amendment right to the freedom of religion. You are supposed to be able to exercise your religion. That’s the most fundamental of all our rights. Remember, that’s the first freedom articulated in the first amendment. That is not to be sacrificed as a member of our military,” said Boykin.
Boykin believes Sterling should never have been ordered to remove the verses, but is mystified at how intense the punishment was when she refused to take them down.
“I had 36 years in the Army. I’ve seen it all. I have never seen anybody go to a bad conduct special court martial for something like this. Normally, you handle this with non-judicial punishment,” he said, noting typical penalties would have included docked pay or some time restricted to barracks.
He says the Marine Corps dropped the hammer for a bigger purpose.
“Frankly, I think the leaders in the Marine Corps, certainly those who were dealing with her situation were trying to send a message to the other Marines,” said Boykin.
While noting the refusal of military leaders to stand up for religious freedom for several years, Boykin says he didn’t see this case coming.
“Actually it did surprise me from the Corps. The Corps is our smallest branch but, as I think we all know, the Corps has historically maintained some rock-solid leadership, leaders that were willing to stand up and leaders that have shown a lot of moral courage,” said Boykin.
Boykin says military leaders in all branches are forgetting where their true loyalty belongs.
“What’s happened to all our military? What’s happened to the leadership of our military and why are they so willing to compromise on such fundamental things. Remember this: every member of the military takes an oath to the Constitution, not to the president. They take an oath to the Constitution,” said Boykin.
So why won’t military leaders stand up for religious freedom?
“America is becoming a Marxist nation. I say that and get criticized, but how many people are supporting Bernie Sanders? What’s the enthusiasm level for Bernie Sanders? America is becoming a Marxist nation,” said Boykin.
“Karl Marx said, ‘My objective is to dethrone God and destroy capitalism.’ He also said religion is the opiate of the masses. You cannot move through the socialist pathway to full Marxism unless you destroy this idea of unalienable rights, rights that come from God. You do that by destroying people’s ability to openly worship their God,” said Boykin.
Boykin says the far left knows that engineering that change first in the military is the key to eradicating it from the public as a whole.
“You’ve got to change the military or you can’t change society. That’s what this administration is all about,” said Boykin.