Monday, February 04, 2008

Military Court Upholds Conviction of Muslim Soldier For Iraq Refusal

In United States v. Webster, (Army Ct. Cr. App., Jan. 30, 2008), the Army Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the court martial conviction and eleven-month sentence of an Army sergeant who refused to deploy to Iraq. Abdullah Webster, a convert to Islam, claimed that his understanding of Muslim teachings prelcuded him from killing a fellow-Muslim in the circumstances presented by the war. The court held that the military judge's acceptance of Webster's guilty plea was not an abuse of discretion. The court rejected Webster's assertion that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act required reversal of his conviction.

In its opinion, the court developed an interesting reconciliation of the strict scrutiny test imposed by RFRA and the pre-RFRA holding by the U.S. Supreme Court in Goldman v. Weinberger, that "review of military regulations challenged on First Amendment grounds is far more deferential than constitutional review of similar laws or regulations designed for civilian society." The Army Court held that:
while strictly scrutinizing the Army’s burden on free exercise of religion, we apply judicial deference to "the professional judgment of military authorities concerning the relative importance of a particular military interest."
Employing this test, it found that the Army has a compelling interest in requiring soldiers to deploy with their units, and that this interest was furthered by the least restrictive means in that Webster was offered a number of accommodations as well as the opportunity to seek conscientious objector status.