Why a Legal Victory for the Navy SEALs Matters


Photo by Touch of Light | Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this week The United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a preliminary injunction, stopping the Department of Defense from punishing military service members who have religious objections to the vaccine mandate. My colleagues at the First Liberty Institute filed the federal lawsuit and motion for preliminary injunction on behalf of dozens of U.S. Navy SEALs and other Naval Special Warfare personnel against the Biden Administration and the Department of Defense for their refusal to grant religious accommodations to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.


Americans of all faith traditions or no faith at all, regardless of pro- or anti-vaccination opinions, should pay close attention to this case.  We all sleep soundly under the blanket of protection these men provide. No nation can long endure if it persists in depriving its most ardent defenders of the very rights and liberties we demand they protect for the rest of us. 


In issuing his injunction, Judge Reed O’Connor said, “The Navy service members in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”


Amen and amen.

The Constitution these SEALs swore an oath to defend wisely mandates civilian control of our military. Yet within the military, there exists a bureaucracy as well, and in this conflict, the bureaucrat in uniform must not be allowed to prevail over the warrior. The Navy SEALs are esteemed even among our other service members for their speed and precision. These 35 men are being victimized by a process that is neither. 


Judge O’Connor’s order also points out:

“The Navy uses a fifty-step process to adjudicate religious accommodation requests. Under the standard operating procedures for the process, the first fifteen steps require an administrator to update a prepared disapproval template with the requester’s name and rank. In essence, the Plaintiffs’ requests are denied the moment they begin…Then, at step thirty-five of the process, the administrator is told—for the first time—to read through the religious accommodation request.”

Judge O’Connor also noted that the SEALs were directly told by their chains of command that the senior leadership of Naval Special Warfare “has no patience or tolerance for service members who refuse COVID-19 vaccination for religious reasons and wants them out of the SEAL community.” And as the judge goes on to say,  “the Navy’s accommodation process confirms those fears.” 


Despite the fact the Navy has granted exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine for other reasons, the Navy has never granted a religious accommodation request for the COVID-19 vaccine to date. Moreover, in the past seven years, the Navy has never granted a single religious accommodation for any vaccine. These facts are a telling sign of the Navy’s religious intolerance.


Surveys of military service members show religious beliefs to be the most cited reason for enlistment. For these SEALs, the faith that compels them to request an accommodation from a vaccine is the same as the faith that motivates their service to their countrymen.  As it is written in the Bible, “Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his friends.”


Do we really want men so incomparably trained in the art of war, so skilled in lethality, to be stripped of any code of morality beyond the following of orders? Have we learned nothing from Nuremberg?


Across our culture everyone, from athletes and coaches to entrepreneurs and consultants, pepper motivational speeches with military metaphors. Politicians of all stripes wrap their petty disagreements, soundbites, and Twitter threads in the verbiage of battle. Hollywood has created an almost mythical mystique around the Navy SEALs. These plaintiffs are not mythical; their battles are not metaphorical. These are real people.


We ask them to be ready at a moment’s notice to venture into the dark corners of our world. And so they go, motivated not by hatred of our enemies but by love of their families and country. They go not as conquerors but defenders. They defend our way of life – our constitution. They fight to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.


If we take from them their most sacred and cherished rights, can we seriously expect them to continue defending ours? If we do, then God help us all.

Lathan Watts

Lathan Watts is Director of Public Affairs for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm and think tank exclusively dedicated to protecting religious freedom for all Americans.

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