Written by Don Byrd

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday announced it would not take up the case of Sterling v. United States, a dispute over a Marine’s desire to display Bible verse quotations in a shared workspace. This leaves in place an appeals court’s determination that she failed to establish why complying with an order to remove the signs would substantially burden her religious exercise under RFRA

Many religious liberty advocates are disappointed in this development, but may be overstating its significance. This ruling does not mean that religious expression by military personnel is always trumped by military orders. It also does not mean that posting religious messages is not protected as religious exercise by RFRA. It is instead – as RFRA cases typically are – a reflection of the particular facts in this case. 

Here is an excerpt from the appeals court decision:

While Appellant testified that posting the signs was religiously motivated in part, she did not testify that she believed it is any tenet or practice of her faith to display signs at work. Nor does Appellant’s testimony indicate how complying with the order to remove the signs pressured her to either change or abandon her beliefs or forced her to act contrary to her religious beliefs. Although Appellant did not have to provide evidence that posting signs in her shared workspace was central to her belief system, she did have to provide evidence indicating an honest belief that “the practice [was] important to [her] free 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.

You can read the appeals court decision here.

The fact that Sterling did not seek a religious freedom accommodation until her trial also concerned the court. “Permitting…military members to disobey orders now and explain why later (much later, as in mid-trial in the instant case),” the opinion said, “makes no sense.”

RFRA requires a fact-intensive inquiry into a particular dispute. Outcomes in RFRA cases like this one are generally reflective of those specific facts, as a court has determined them.  First, a claimant must demonstrate that her religious exercise has been substantially burdened. In this case, the appeals court ruled that threshold, which would have shifted the burden to the government, was not met. A similar case with different circumstances could turn out differently. That is how RFRA is designed to work.