Katsareas v. United States Navy

How does an Australian living in Qatar decide to enlist in the United States military?  

When Leo Katsareas was a teenager in Australia, he found himself drawn to Islam as a path to Providence and a vehicle for protecting the inalienable rights of others and opposing all forms of oppression. At age sixteen, he converted and began living as a practicing Muslim. Later, as a young adult living abroad, Leo studied the American founding era, reading the texts of the Founding Fathers and the United States Constitution. He fell in love with America’s history, its principles, and particularly its commitment to freedom. He vowed to one day come to the United States and serve in the military.

Since then, Leo has done just that. After immigrating to the United States, he spent time working for the government, defending the American people and the freedom he loves by helping uncover and prevent significant terrorist threats both domestically and abroad. In 2016, he joined the United States military as he had promised, enlisting in the Navy. In his years of service, Leo has served on ships domestically and internationally becoming a Mass Communication Specialist in 2019. He works tirelessly for his adopted country while living out his Islamic faith.

A call to serve God and a call to serve Country  

A convert to Islam, Leo Katsareas believes that his faith requires him to wear a four-inch beard. This belief has led him to consistently seek accommodations from the Navy’s strict grooming policies. While on a ship in the Red Sea, MC3 Katsareas received a temporary “chit” — a note of permission — that allowed him to keep a beard. And at his last duty station, his commanding officers granted him a partial, quarter-inch accommodation, consistent with the exemptions given to those with medical needs. However, he was told that even this limited permission was not permanent, and he would need to reapply at any future stations of duty.

Grooming policies of the United States Military are designed to prevent safety threats and ensure that uniforms aren’t compromised. In the case of a fire on a ship, for example, Navy personnel might need to quickly don effective masks. MC3 Katsareas agrees that in a life or death situation, he may have to shave his beard and is willing to do so in the interests of his own safety and that of his fellow Sailors. However, he has been able to wear a mask with no issue, including during combat actions in 2016, where he was assigned to his ship’s firefighting party when it came under guided missile fire by Houthi insurgents in Yemen, as well as in other firefighting training situations. Additionally, in recent years the Army and Air Force have both updated their grooming policies in recent years to accommodate religious minorities. The Navy has failed to keep up.

Despite the absence of significant safety concerns that can’t be worked around, and despite broad religious accommodations granted by the other branches of the United States military, the Navy initially denied MC3 Katsareas’s recent request for a full accommodation that would allow him to grow a substantial beard in accordance with his Islamic faith. With Becket’s help, MC3 Katsareas launched an internal appeal of the Navy’s denial, seeking to defend the American freedom he fell in love with: the right to practice one’s religion in the public square, including while serving one’s country.

Protecting religious minorities from unjust exclusion 

In April 2020, the Navy denied Leo’s seventh request for an accommodation for a fist-length beard. In May 2020, Leo appealed the denial, represented by Becket. On July 15, 2020, the Navy reconsidered and granted Leo a temporary, revocable accommodation, informing him that he can maintain his full religiously motivated beard and remain in good standing with the United States Navy while in his current duty assignment. In doing so, the Navy acted in accordance with the accommodation policies of other branches of the military and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Passed by a bipartisan Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993 with the support of an extensive coalition of religious and civil rights leaders, RFRA prohibits the military from suppressing an individual’s sincere religious exercise without a compelling government reason.

Becket has successfully defended members of the U.S. military seeking religious accommodations a number of times. In 2015, Becket filed suit alongside the Sikh Coalition and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery on behalf of Captain Simratpal “Simmer” Singh, a committed Sikh and long-time captain in the U.S. Army, in Singh v. Carter, securing him temporary protections for his religious beard and turban. Becket filed a similar suit in 2016 in Singh v. McConville, representing three Sikh servicemen in the Army also seeking to serve without abandoning the marks of their faith. In response to the court ruling in Singh v. Carter and the suit in Singh v. McConville, the Army issued new regulations in 2017 stating that Sikh soldiers would not be forced to abandon articles of their faith throughout their military careers, thus making the victory for religious minorities serving their country a permanent one. Despite the Army’s new regulations, West Point did not automatically accommodate the religious beliefs of its cadets. In August 2017, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Sikh cadets slated to attend West Point. In court, West Point admitted that it did not have a compelling reason to deny Sikhs the ability to serve, and issued new guidelines that would allow Sikh cadets to maintain their articles of faith while serving at the Academy.

The Navy ought to follow the example of the Army and Air Force and America’s founding principles in recognizing and accommodating the religious belief of its service members and protecting the place of religion in the public square for all Americans. Service to country need not prevent service to God.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Individual freedomAn individual’s religious exercise encompasses more than just belief or worship — it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith. Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times — including while defending the freedom of all Americans by serving in the armed forces.  

Public SquareReligion is natural to human beings and to human culture. Because of this, religious expression cannot be limited to the private sphere, but can, and should, have a place in the public square.  

RFRAThe government — and, consequently, the military — cannot burden religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives. 

Wisconsin Churches Reopen

Houses of Worship are Essential

The Catholic Diocese of Madison has been committed to preserving the health and safety of its community members throughout the coronavirus pandemic, voluntarily suspending public masses before it was mandated by the state and generally cooperating with the directives of the local and state health officials from the beginning. They have not neglected their Christian duty either, heroically springing into action to provide remote schooling, care for the sick and dying in Catholic hospitals, and continue serving the hungry, uninsured and incarcerated.

On May 18, 2020, Madison/Dane County officials put out an order listing houses of worship as “essential services” and thus allowing them to resume holding in-person services at 25 percent capacity. The Diocese of Madison got straight to work to put together a plan for safely reopening with appropriate social distancing and hygiene protocol.

Dashed expectations

But just when members of the Catholic community thought that they would finally receive the spiritual solace and healing they’d been craving, Madison/Dane County pulled the rug out from under the Diocese. After the Diocese published its safe reopening plan, on May 22, 2020, Madison/Dane County put out a new order capping in-person worship services at 50 people. This new order meant that some Catholic churches in Madison would be limited to less than five percent capacity, while shopping malls, bars, restaurants, spas, gyms, salons, museums, movie theaters, community centers, bowling alleys, skating rinks, trampoline parks and more were free to open at 25 percent capacity.

Following the May 22 order, the Madison/Dane County Health Department contacted Diocesan officials and parishes to inform them that overseers would be sent to churches and fines of up to $1000 would be imposed for every instance in which more than 50 people were gathered for Mass.

Constitutional consequences

On June 3, 2020, Becket, Sidley Austin LLP, and Troutman Sanders LLP sent a letter to County Executive Parisi and Mayor Rhodes-Conway explaining that the 50-person cap is unconstitutional and illegal. On June 5, 2020 Mayor Rhodes-Conway and County Executive Parisi released a new “Forward Dane” executive order returning houses of worship to equal footing with secular services at 25 percent capacity for in-person worship services.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious communitiesThe First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause protects religious Americans from undue burdens on their religious exercise. When churches are given a special disability not felt by secular entities, the government is violating the Free Exercise Clause by burdening religious practice.

Minnesota Churches’ Challenge to COVID-19 Executive Order

Leaders in protecting public health  

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota have been leaders in protecting public health. They voluntarily suspended in-person services to prevent the spread of COVID-19 well before statewide stay-at-home orders came into effect. Since then, these faith communities have been ministering to their communities any way they can—serving meals to the homeless, donating medical supplies, accompanying the elderly, and raising money for those in need.

Aware of the deep spiritual, mental, and emotional loss that comes from being deprived of in-person worship, on May 7 the churches presented Governor Walz with proposed protocols for resuming in-person worship services in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On May 13, Governor Walz issued an executive order allowing retailers to open their doors to fifty percent capacity, businesses—from pet-grooming services to medical cannabis operations—to resume in-person work, and even announced a phased plan for reopening bars and restaurants. In-person worship, however, remained banned beyond ten people. No guidance or plans for reopening were announced.

This meant that while the Mall of America could open its doors to those seeking retail therapy, houses of worship were barred from providing spiritual healing to their congregations.

Retail therapy, but no spiritual healing

The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota remain committed to mitigating the risk of spreading coronavirus in their congregations and communities by instituting rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But, if the state deems the risk low enough to reopen non-essential businesses, why should religious communities be forced to comply with a ten-person limit?

Acting in defense of religious liberty

After weeks of negotiation between the churches and the governor to try to achieve equal treatment for churches and houses of worship, on May 20, Becket sent a letter to Governor Walz on behalf of the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota explaining that continuing this discriminatory treatment of in-person worship violates federal and state law.

The letter announced that on May 26, 2020, in advance of Pentecost Sunday (May 31), the faith communities would resume holding in-person worship services and ministering to their congregations at one-third capacity whether or not Governor Walz amended his executive order. Governor Walz returned to the negotiating table after the Churches acted in defense of their free exerciseannouncing on May 23 that he would clear the way for houses of worship of all faith traditions to open to larger groups starting May 27, 2020. 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious communitiesThe First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause protects religious Americans from undue burdens on their religious exercise. When Churches are given a special disability not felt by secular entities, the government is violating the Free Exercise Clause by substantially burdening religious practice.

Chahal v. Seamands

The United States Military Academy at West Point will now accommodate Sikh soldiers, allowing them to wear their essential articles of faith, after two young men persisted for the right to serve their country without being forced to abandon their articles of faith. 

Called to serve their country 

Cadet Arjan Singh Ghotra has been preparing to serve in the U.S. Army since high school. He volunteered for both the Civil Air Patrol and the Virginia Defense Force, and won the Virginia Defense Force Medal for his service at age 17. When he became eligible in 2015, Cadet Ghotra enlisted in the Virginia Army National Guard. After completing one year in the National Guard he applied to, and was accepted at, West Point.  

Like Cadet Ghotra, Cadet Ugrian Singh Chahal knew at a young age that he wanted to serve his country through the military. Inspired by a family history of army service and the service members he met growing up near the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan, Cadet Chahal worked hard and, like Cadet Ghotra, gained admission to West Point in 2016. 

Denied the ability to serve both God and Country  

From World War I until 1981, the U.S. Army allowed observant Sikhs to serve honorably in the U.S. military while maintaining their articles of faith. But a 1981 policy change banned observant Sikhs from military service simply because they wore turbans and unshorn hair and beards—two of the articles of faith required by their religion.  

As observant Sikhs, Cadets Ghotra and Chahal asked for accommodations that would permit them to continue their service to their country at West Point without having to abandon their articles of faith. Their requests were denied. They were left with the heartbreaking choice: to serve their country or to follow their faith. 

Making room for faith in the ranks 

When Cadet Ghotra realized in March 2016 that he would not be able to participate in practice drills at West Point because of the prohibition on his articles of faith, he submitted his request for a religious accommodation. But because the Army refused to respond, Becket, the Sikh Coalition, and McDermott Will & Emery stepped in to challenge the Army’s policy.  

At a court hearing in August, the Army conceded that it had no legitimate grounds for denying Sikhs the full opportunity to serve their country at West Point and issued new guidelines allowing them to maintain their articles of faith while serving.   

Cadets Ghotra and Chahal are the first two fully-observant Sikh men to serve at West Point.