Sunday, February 19, 2017
Here's a news release concerning the latest brief filed by the Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic that I supervise at St. Thomas. It's an amicus curiae brief in Sterling v. United States, a cert petition involving the application of RFRA in the military. The petitioner, Marine LCpl Monifa Sterling, "was court-martialed for, among other things, objecting to a superior’s order to remove from her work station three small signs displaying a Bible verse." (It's Isaiah 54:17: "No weapon formed against me shall prosper.") Whether or not LCpl Sterling should ultimately win her case, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces wrongly cut off her claims at the threshold, making some bad errors in holding that the order to remove the verses had not "substantially burdened" her religious exercise. As the news item explains:
The courts held that Sterling had not been burdened because she had not shown that the order violated any religious tenet that she display signs, because she had not given clear notice that the signs were religious, and because she had not asked for a religious accommodation through the military’s administrative processes.
The certiorari petition and the St. Thomas clinic’s amicus brief argue that all these grounds for denying RFRA’s application are inconsistent with the statute and precedents. Moreover, they argue, the Supreme Court must review the decision because these grounds would broadly restrict the rights of military personnel—Sikh, Jewish, Christian, and others—to follow their religious practices in the military when it would not undercut combat-readiness or good order.
“The [military courts’] narrow conception of burden,” the clinic’s amicus brief states, “wrongly rejects claims at the threshold and neuters RFRA’s requirement—equally applicable in the military—that substantial restrictions on religious activity must be justified by compelling governmental interests.”
... The organizations joining the brief include several religious denominations; the National Association of Evangelicals; the Christian Legal Society (co-counsel); and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, which represents religious organizations certifying 2,600 military chaplains, about 50 percent of those currently serving in the armed forces.
My student Andrew Hanson, class of 2018, did a great job doing much of the drafting on this brief.
Although the odds are always long on a cert petition, keep an eye out for this case. The petition was filed by Paul Clement; there are several other amicus briefs in support; and the justices ordered the government to filed a response after it initially waived responding.