Court Grants Preliminary Relief to Service Members in Navy SEAL 1 Case

Feb 18, 2022

TAMPA, FL — Federal Judge Steven Merryday has granted a preliminary injunction for two service members in Navy SEAL 1 v. Austin (formerly Biden) who were denied religious exemptions from the COVID shot mandate. The court based its ruling on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), finding that the Marines and the Navy failed to demonstrate “to the individualized person” two of RFRA’s essential requirements on government action that burdens a person’s sincere religious belief – a compelling interest and the least restrictive means. This conclusion alone will essentially undo the blanket requirement placed on service members to get the COVID shots when such action burdens their sincere religious beliefs. 

Today the court also granted the motion for the two plaintiffs to remain anonymous. While this order applies to two plaintiffs who faced immediate discipline after their religious accommodation requests (RAR) were denied, the judge also has pending motions to grant a preliminary injunction for (1) the remaining 28 plaintiffs that cover every military branch and (2) the entire class of military plaintiffs whose RARs have been denied. A ruling on these two outstanding motions is expected soon. 

During the recent hearing in Tampa, Judge Merryday heard from the Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel and Navy Command Surface Warfare Officer who testified about their sincerely held religious beliefs to not taking the COVID shots. These two plaintiffs in the case were scheduled to be disciplined on February 2 and February 3, after their appeals for religious exemptions were denied by their respective military branches. 

In today’s order Judge Merryday wrote that “the Navy and the Marine Corps fail to ‘demonstrate’ the individualized ‘to the person’ analysis required when reviewing Navy Commander’s or Lieutenant Colonel 2’s request for a religious exemption. The defendants’ justifications for denying a religious accommodation to Navy Commander and Lieutenant Colonel 2 are elementally inadequate under RFRA.”

The court continued: “Identifying only the broadly articulated governmental interests and broadly articulated demands of military life, neither denial letter engages in any individualized assessment of Navy Commander’s or Lieutenant Colonel 2’s request.” 

The court further wrote, “Absent record material demonstrating that the military considered both the marginal increase, if any, in the risk of contagion incurred by granting the requested exemption and the marginal detrimental effect, if any, on military readiness and the health of the force flowing from the specific denial of Navy Commander’s and Lieutenant Colonel 2’s request for religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccination, the government fails to demonstrate that either denial results from an individualized “to the person” evaluation required by RFRA. In other words, the government has not shown that the stated interest cannot be reasonably preserved without subjecting Navy Commander and Lieutenant Colonel 2 to vaccination contrary to a sincerely held religious belief protected by RFRA or, given a refusal to vaccinate, separating each from service.” 

“In sum, the defendants fail to articulate why Navy Commander’s and Lieutenant Colonel 2’s sincerely held religious practice must yield to the requirement to accept COVID-19 vaccination…The submission reveals a process of ‘rubber stamp’ adjudication by form letter, a process incompatible with RFRA’s command to assess each request ‘to the person.’…A blanket or categorical grant no more satisfies RFRA’s individualized assessment than does a blanket or categorical denial. Although only a sample of the hundreds of denial letters issued by the military, the documents considered in conjunction with the administrative record supporting Navy Commander’s and Lieutenant Colonel 2’s denial, strongly illustrates that the military fails to afford an applicant an actual ‘case-by-case assessment’ as required by RFRA…Requiring a service member either to follow a direct order contrary to a sincerely held religious belief or to face immediate processing for separation or other punishment undoubtedly causes irreparable harm,” wrote the court. 

“Further, to the extent a ‘substantial disruption’ results from the defendants’ systemic failure to assess a religious exemption request ‘to the person,’ the ‘harm’ suffered by defendants results only from the defendants’ own failure to comply with RFRA,” wrote Judge Merryday. 

The court also stated, “In the instance of Navy Commander and Lieutenant Colonel 2, the Navy and the Marine Corps have failed manifestly to offer the statutorily required demonstration that no less restrictive means is available, and each of the two service members is entitled to preliminary in-junctive relief that (1) permits them, pending a final determination on a complete record, to continue to serve without the vaccination and (2) forbids any punitive or retaliatory measure against either by the military pending a final judgment in this action.” 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “This order vindicates the rule of law, which the Department of Defense and every military branch have violated with this unlawful COVID shot mandate. These brave service members give their lives to defend the Constitution, and sadly the freedom they fight to preserve was denied them – until today! These abusive actions against these military heroes under the guise of a vaccine mandate carried out by unlawful orders have now collided with the rule of law – and the law won. Freedom is still alive for those who fight to defend her. The bravery of these military warriors to fight the enemy on foreign soil is equally, if not more, demonstrated when they are willing to fight unlawful orders emanating from the Department of Defense. Today’s order proves these service members can love God and love country while continuing to serve in their respective military branches. They no longer have to choose between their Christian convictions and their service to our nation.” 

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