Thursday, August 11, 2016

Armed Forces Court of Appeals Interprets RFRA In Military Context

In United States v. Sterling, (US Armed Forces Ct. App., Aug. 10, 2016), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces held that a Marine Lance Corporal failed to establish a prima facie case under RFRA in defending against charges growing out of her work space posting of unauthorized signs containing Biblical quotations.  Appellant, in the wake of other personnel issues, posted 3 signs reading "[n]o weapon formed against me shall prosper."  The signs did not indicate that these were Bible verses. She refused orders to remove them and was court martialed.  The majority held in part:
while the posting of signs was claimed to be religiously motivated at least in part and thus falls within RFRA’s expansive definition of “religious exercise,” Appellant has nonetheless failed to identify the sincerely held religious belief that made placing the signs important to her exercise of religion or how the removal of the signs substantially burdened her exercise of religion in some other way. We decline Appellant’s invitation to conclude that any interference at all with a religiously motivated action constitutes a substantial burden, particularly where the claimant did not bother to either inform the government that the action was religious or seek an available accommodation.
The court spelled out its understanding of what must be shown to establish that the government imposed a substantial burden on appellant's religious exercise:
[W]hile we will not assess the importance of a religious practice to a practitioner’s exercise of religion or impose any type of centrality test, a claimant must at least demonstrate “an honest belief that the practice is important to [her] free exercise of religion” in order to show that a government action substantially burdens her religious exercise.... A substantial burden is not measured only by the secular costs that government action imposes; the claimant must also establish that she believes there are religious costs as well, and this should be clear from the record....
In contrast, courts have found that a government practice that offends religious sensibilities but does not force the claimant to act contrary to her beliefs does not constitute a substantial burden.... We reject the argument that every interference with a religiously motivated act constitutes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion. 
Contrary to Appellant’s assertions before this Court, the trial evidence does not even begin to establish how the orders to take down the signs interfered with any precept of her religion let alone forced her to choose between a practice or principle important to her faith and disciplinary action.
Judge Ohlson dissented, saying in part:
Unfortunately, instead of remanding this case so that it can be properly adjudicated by the court below, the majority instead has chosen to impose a stringent, judicially made legal standard in this and future religious liberty cases that is not supported by the provisions of RFRA. Contrary to the majority’s holding, the plain language of the statute does not empower judges to curtail various manifestations of sincere religious belief simply by arbitrarily deciding that a certain act was not “important” to the believer’s exercise of religion.  Neither does the statute empower judges to require a believer to ask of the government, “Mother, may I?” before engaging in sincere religious conduct. And further, nowhere in the statute are service members required to inform the government of the religious nature of their conduct at the time they engage in it.
[Thanks to for the lead.]