U.S. Navy SEALs 1-4 v. Lloyd Austin, Secretary, Department of Defense

(Washington, D.C.) – Four members of the U.S. Navy’s elite Sea, Air, and Land Teams, commonly known as Navy SEALs, have filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.), challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate.  The four SEALs, all devout Christian men, object to the mandate on religious grounds.

SEALs are the U.S. Navy’s primary special operations force, and they are a component of the Naval Special Warfare Command.  The four SEALs are represented by the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC).

Prior to filing the lawsuit, AFLC had to file a special motion with the court, requesting that the plaintiff service members be permitted to proceed pseudonymously (i.e., proceed in the case using the pseudonym Navy SEAL rather than their actual names).  As set forth in that motion, these men participate in classified military operations and, consequently, are properly concerned that disclosure of their names would place them and their families in grave danger, along with other members of the special operations forces and their families, as well as compromise national security interests.  The chief judge granted the motion, clearing the way for the filing of the complaint.

The lawsuit alleges that the vaccine mandate violates the rights of the Navy SEALs protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

As set forth in the Complaint filed in this case:

Plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs prevent them from receiving any of the current COVID-19 vaccines.

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Plaintiffs’ faith teaches that they must obey their consciences in all matters.  Forcing Plaintiffs to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or suffer adverse consequences, including, but not limited to, prosecution and criminal penalties, discharge from the military, removal from special warfare operations, adverse fitness reports, loss of pay and benefits, loss of education and training opportunities, and loss of personal decorations and insignia, specifically including the Special Warfare / SEAL Trident insignia, places a substantial burden on Plaintiffs’ exercise of their religion.

RFRA, which protects service members as well as civilians, prohibits the federal government from placing a “substantial burden on a person’s exercise of religion.”

 To justify a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion under RFRA, the government must demonstrate that the challenged action is “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”  The government’s burden is a heavy one.

Under RFRA, the government must satisfy strict scrutiny, which is the most demanding test known to constitutional law.

CASE UPDATE (March 25, 2022): Today, we filed a motion for a preliminary injunction on behalf of Navy SEAL 4 as he is currently pending adverse disciplinary proceedings for the “Commission of a Serious Offense” (i.e., for asserting a religious objection to the vaccine mandate).

CASE UPDATE (April, 14, 2022): We filed our reply in support of our motion for preliminary injunction.

CASE UPDATE (April 29, 2022): The district court denied our motion for preliminary injunction.

CASE UPDATE (May 1, 2022): We filed our notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit from the district court’s adverse decision denying our motion for a preliminary injunction.

CASE UPDATE (June 24, 2022): We filed a First Amended Complaint.

CASE UPDATE (July 28, 2022): We filed our opening brief in the D.C. Circuit.

CASE UPDATE (September 12, 2022):  We filed our response to the government’s motions to dismiss.

CASE UPDATE (September 30, 2022): We filed our surreply on the issue of justiciability.

CASE UPDATE (October 27, 2022): We filed our reply brief in the D.C. Circuit.

CASE UPDATE (January 23, 2023): At the Appellate Court’s request, we filed a supplemental brief on mootness in the D.C. Circuit in light of the fact that the Secretary of Defense rescinded the vaccine mandate.

CASE UPDATE (January 23, 2023): at the District Court’s request, we filed a reply brief on the mootness issue in light of the fact that the Secretary of Defense rescinded the vaccine mandate.