Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. District of Columbia

Bringing together faith, service, and sports 

Founded in 1954, FCA is a religious ministry that supports student-athletes committed to living out their Christian faith on and off the playing field. FCA helps form “huddles” on college, high school, and middle school campuses, where student-athletes come together for prayer, testimonies, and Bible study. In addition to its huddle ministry, FCA operates athletic camps and other community service events for tens of thousands of students annually. FCA clubs are open to students of all faiths or none, and there is no membership requirement for those who participate. 

FCA has long served schools in Washington, D.C. Each year, FCA’s DC chapter offers $30,000 in scholarships for local student-athletes to attend FCA-run summer sports camps. FCA also partners with the D.C. Dream Center, a community center in Southeast D.C., to host “all abilities” sports camps for student-athletes with disabilities. Beyond helping students gather for fellowship and service, FCA DC’s huddles help local schools address high rates of student absences—a well-known problem in the District. FCA meetings, which are on-campus and during the school day, build high-quality friendships among students and encourage them to attend class.  

FCA sidelined for its faith 

In 2022, an FCA huddle returned to campus at Jackson-Reed High School in D.C. after a brief pause during the pandemic. Two weeks later, however, a part-time freshman baseball coach told local FCA staff that, because of FCA’s beliefs, there was “no place for a group like FCA in a public school.” He filed a complaint with D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) accusing Jackson-Reed of violating the District of Columbia Human Rights Act by allowing FCA on campus.  

Because of the coach’s complaint, DCPS immediately stripped the Jackson-Reed FCA huddle of official recognition, stopped it from meeting, removed it from the list of student clubs, deleted its club website, and launched a formal investigation into FCA. During the investigation, FCA representatives explained to DCPS that any student is welcome to participate in FCA huddles; all FCA asks is that its student leaders—those who lead prayer, Bible study, and religious teaching—agree with its religious beliefs. Despite these facts, DCPS kicked FCA off campus at Jackson-Reed, and offered to let Jackson-Reed back on campus only if it assured that anyone could lead FCA, “regardless of … religious affiliation, or personal belief.”  As a result, current Jackson-Reed students who wish to meet as a recognized FCA huddle on campus, can’t. 

FCA seeks equal access to public school campuses 

After losing official recognition, FCA unsuccessfully appealed the decision, pointing out that DCPS could not exclude FCA from campus because it asks its leaders to agree to its beliefs. In fact, Jackson-Reed already recognizes many student groups formed around particular beliefs and characteristics—including the Asian Student Union, which is “for students of Asian heritage,” and the Wise Club, which offers a “separate space for young women.” DCPS itself even runs entire schools that condition admission on race and sex. So for DCPS to start selectively targeting FCA over its religious leadership requirements clearly violates the law. 

With the help of Becket, FCA filed a federal lawsuit against DCPS on May 7, 2024. The complaint points to a similar Becket case involving FCA, Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District, in which an FCA club won its right to return to campus after being harassed and kicked out of public schools in San Jose, CA, for its leadership requirements. The “en banc” Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals––a special panel of 11 judges—ruled in 2023 that San Jose unlawfully penalized FCA for its religious beliefs and used a double standard that failed to treat FCA like all other student groups. FCA is now asking for the same equal access to public school campuses in the nation’s capital. 

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Education: There is a nation-wide trend of curbing free speech—especially religious speech—on public-school campuses. But students do not forfeit their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religious exercise, and freedom of association when studying at a public school. 
  • Religious Communities—Religious groups must be able to select the members of their ministries according to their religious mission and sincere faith, free from government interference. 

Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo

Supreme Court allows government power grab 

The framework of American government was built on the idea that different branches of government should check and balance each other. That structure was created to stop a concentration of power in any one branch that would eventually lead to abuses by the government. However, in its 1984 ruling Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council, the Supreme Court gave the executive branch enormous power over the branches of the federal government. The Court ruled that when a law passed by Congress is unclear, courts should trust executive branch agencies to interpret and apply the law in the first instance. This power, known as Chevron “deference”, has given federal officials license to wield executive authority in ways that go well beyond what Congress intended. For years, the Chevron decision has empowered federal government officials to target religious believers for special disfavor. 

Chevron punishes religious groups 

The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns that run homes for the elderly poor, are just one example of how Chevron has hurt religious groups. In 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a federal mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This mandate, based on vague language in the ACA, required employers to provide contraceptives in their health insurance plans. Despite the many religious objections to the contraceptive mandate, HHS included an exceedingly narrow religious exemption—one that did not include groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Little Sisters’ religious beliefs about the dignity of all human life meant that complying with the mandate was impossible.  

For a decade now, the Little Sisters have been in and out of court fighting to receive permanent protection from the contraceptive mandate. Even though they have secured multiple victories—including at the Supreme Court—they have been forced through years of court battles. The endless cycle of punishment for religious objectors exists because the Court’s decision in Chevron has empowered federal regulators to create new ways to punish unpopular religious groups and deny them exemptions. 

The Court should rebalance the branches of government 

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of The Little Sisters of the Poor in support of Loper Bright, detailing the long history of how unchecked executive power has been a unique threat to religious groups. The brief urges the Court to adopt a rule that will check executive overreach at all levels of the legal system, ensuring that officials can no longer use their powers to run roughshod over religious believers. This will protect religious groups like the Little Sisters who will not be forced to endure years of litigation in federal courts. 


Importance to Religious Liberty:

Religious communities — The ability of individuals to gather freely together to worship and teach their religion is a cornerstone of religious liberty. U.S. law has always protected the rights of religious ministries, schools, and churches to be able to make their own rules and live out their own values free from government interference.

Singh v. Berger

A Firm Faith Tradition 

For centuries, Sikhs have lived according to the teachings of the gurus, which instruct them to shun evil and seek self-mastery, to regard God’s creation as sacred, and to always defend the weak and helpless. Many devout Sikhs live out their religious duty to defend the defenseless by serving with distinction in militaries around the world while maintaining their articles of faith, including unshorn hair. But Sikhs who seek to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps find themselves forced to choose between their religious obligations and their calling to do good

Uniformity with Exceptions  

Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal faced a horrible dilemma when they sought to join the Marine Corps: shave and abandon their religious beliefs or go home. Even though the recruits passed all the medical and physical tests required to join, the Marine Corps argues that they must shave their beards to begin basic training because having a “uniform appearance” is necessary during recruit training. But other Marines are allowed to grow out their beards for medical reasons, and the Army, Air Force, and United States Military Academy permit religious beards during initial training.  

 The Marine Corps has been relaxing its uniformity standard for years specifically to promote greater diversity, allowing more diverse hairstyles, updating its dress code to better accommodate women, and even loosening longstanding bans on tattoos. In addition, the Marine Corps has recently granted Marines—including those in bootcamp—more leeway to grow a beard to combat “razor bumps,” a painful medical condition that inflames the face and neck after a close shave. And the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force have long been able to accommodate Sikh servicemembers—beards and all—without compromising mission readiness or safety.  

A Longstanding Defense 

Fortunately, the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) ban the federal government from restricting religious freedom unnecessarily. This means that denying religious accommodations by asserting a need for uniformity while granting lots of other secular exceptions is not only unfair but unlawful as well. Sikhs shouldn’t have to choose between their faith’s teachings that encourage their military service, and their religious understanding of God’s requirements for their physical appearance. Their lawsuit simply asks the government to provide them with religious accommodations equal to those granted to Marines for secular reasons. 

In August 2022, a D.C. district court ruled in Toor v. Berger that the three Marine recruits should not be protected with religious accommodations while the case is ongoing. Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, asking the court to allow them to enter basic training while keeping their articles of faith. On December 23, 2022, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled to protect the three Sikh recruits’ faith while their case continues. Judge Millett wrote for the court, saying that the Marines Corps has never explained “why the Corps cannot apply the same or similar [religious] accommodations that the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and Coast Guard provide.” 

Captain Toor, Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Chahal are represented by Becket, Winston & Strawn, and the Sikh Coalition. Jaskirat Singh is also represented by Baker Hostetler. 

Importance for Religious Liberty: 

  • Individual freedom: For generations, people have sought out the United States as a place where they could freely live out their individual beliefs. That freedom does not end where military service begins: the Constitution, federal law, and the traditions of the armed forces all recognize that American servicemembers serve their country best when their own religious freedoms are protected.  


Photo Credit: Sikh Coalition

Di Liscia v. Austin

Beards: a naval tradition and a religious obligation 

For most of the nearly 250-year-old history of the U.S. Navy, sailors were known for their beards – indeed, the Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War, Gideon Welles, sported a full, bushy beard. In the 1970s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations, forbade discrimination or any violation of the “rights and privileges” of sailors who chose to wear beards – which helped sailors suffering from “razor bumps” (Pseudofolliculitis barbae), a painful infection aggravated by shaving.  

This policy also accommodated the needs of religious minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs, and Orthodox Jews, who often wear beards in accordance with the traditions and obligations of their faith. But in 1985, the Navy did an about-face and broadly banned beardswhile granting limited exemptions for religious, morale, and medical purposes. In recent years, the Navy has begun to further narrow those exemptions, rejecting religious exemption requests and pressuring sailors to give up medical exemptions, instead of allowing them to keep their beards.  

An unnecessary conflict 

This has made America’s Navy a much less welcoming place for sailors like Edmund Di LisciaDi Liscia, devout Orthodox Jew, joined the U.S. Navy in 2018 and is currently at sea, serving on the USS Theodore RooseveltDi Liscia’s Jewish faith requires him to wear a beard as a sign of spiritual maturity, and an expression of obedience and fidelity to God. So in September 2020, he formally requested a religious exemption from the Navy’s shaving policy, but the Navy refused to accommodate his religious convictions. Fortunately, Di Liscia has been able to maintain his beard thanks to temporary no-shave “chita religious accommodation granted by a commanding officer that allowed him to keep his beard

The chits aren’t just granted for religious reasons. For example, while at sea, Di Liscia’s commanding officer granted a ship-wide no-shave chit to boost moraleHowever, temporary chits aren’t sufficient to protect the religious liberty of sailors like Di Liscia. Case in point, on April 14, 2021, the Navy decided—for no apparent reason—that Di Liscia’s chit was no longer valid, and he was told that he must shave his beard within 24 hours or face punishment. 

But the Navy’s unfair policy is an outlierThe Army and Air Force have both taken steps to allow religious minorities to serve with their beards intact. Other nations, like the United Kingdom and Israel, also allow their sailors to maintain beards, proving that religious minorities don’t have to be faced with the choice of serving their country or their Creator.  

Under federal law, the military is prohibited from suppressing an individual’s religious exercise without a compelling government interest. On April 15, 2021, Becket asked the District Court for the District of Columbia to stop the Navy from forcing Di Liscia to shaveand sued to protect three other Muslim sailors, Leo KatsareasDominque Braggs, and Mohammed Shoyebas well. They will show once and for all that the Navy only stands to gain by letting them exercise their religious faith.   

Just a few hours after Becket’s filing, the Court set an emergency hearing and issued an order temporarily protecting Di Liscia from being forced to shave. Soon after, the Navy confirmed that it would not force Di Liscia to shave in the short term, and Becket will continue pursuing a lasting accommodation so that Di Liscia, and other sailors like him, can freely live out their religious beliefs while serving their country. 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual FreedomThe government cannot burden the sincere religious beliefs of individuals by preventing them from exercising their faith. Because all individuals have a right to sincerely follow their faiththe government cannot discriminate against them by impeding their religious conduct or forbidding their obligatory religious practices. Instead, the government should find ways to respect their religious exercise.

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Bowser

A beacon of hope in dark times 

The Catholics of the D.C. area have served others since 1794Just as it had during past crises, the Archdiocese of Washington rose to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, it voluntarily suspended worship services, but its charitable arm, Catholic Charities, worked ceaselessly, providing over 1 million meals as the crisis increased need, with a Catholic Charities in Columbia Heights now serving 650 people a week, up from the 40-person pre-pandemic weekly average. 

When the Archdiocese reopened churches in the summer, it instituted a series of stringent preventative measures to ensure its worship services were not virus spreading events. The Archdiocese’s plan – which was devised from the gold-standard recommendations of doctors at top universities and hospitals – was extremely effective, and although thousands of Masses have been celebrated since Catholic churches in the diocese have reopened their doors, they have not resulted in a single known COVID outbreak.  

No room for worshipers in the church?  

During the week of Thanksgiving, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an executive order that lowered in-person attendance at church services to a hard cap of 50 people. When the new order went into effect on the day before Thanksgiving, it did not hamper the operations of restaurants, retail chains, public libraries, or many other establishments. However, it impacted the Archdiocese severely. Half of the Archdiocese’s churches in Washington, D.C., can accommodate 500 people, and the largest Catholic church in the United States, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, is located in the District. These churches have more than enough room to hold hundreds of worshippers safely while following the social-distancing and disinfection protocols that have proven to be effective. And if the Basilica were a gym instead of a church, the executive order would allow it to bring in 600 people – but because it was a church, it is subjected to the same fifty-person cap that much smaller buildings were.  

However, when the Archdiocese repeatedly reached out to the Mayor to request a more reasonable regulation, it was rebuffed. With Christmas just around the corner, the Archdiocese brought the case to a federal court, in hopes of finding a more equitable treatment for the Archdiocese’s 655,000 parishioners in time for Christmas. In response to the litigation, the Mayor agreed to raise the cap for houses of worship to 250 people, and a federal judge later struck the arbitrary caps down, finding that they did not have “adequate consideration for constitutional rights.”

The Archdiocese of Washington is represented by Becket and Jones Day LLP 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual freedomindividuals have the right to act in accordance to their religious convictions – and this includes the right to gather together and celebrate holy days and engage in communal worship and prayer without being singled out for unfair treatment or subjected to coercion by the government.  

Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser

Protecting the health and safety of our communities

Since March 2020, Americans have made great sacrifices to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most significant sacrifices has been the suspension of in-person worship. Across the country, churches like Capitol Hill Baptist Church voluntarily took necessary steps to protect the health and safety of their congregations and communities.

Since March, Americans have learned much about the virus and how to prevent its spread. In response, 42 states across the country have correctly loosened restrictions on in-person worship, allowing churches to responsibly resume their free exercise of faith, and imposing no capacity limit on outdoor services as long as worshipers wear masks and practice proper social distancing.

Religious worship held to a double standard

In March, Washington D.C., like so many other cities, imposed restrictions on public worship for the sake of public health. But, six months later, D.C. stands as an outlier amongst states and localities across the country because it continues to restrict in-person worship to no more than 100 people even if services are held outside and masking and proper social distancing are employed.

Meanwhile, the District has been a hotbed for protest, including gatherings of thousands (and even tens of thousands) of citizens to protest the death of George Floyd and advocate for racial justice. Mayor Muriel Bowser has not only encouraged, but participated in these protests, all the while keeping in place restrictions on in-person worship.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s religious convictions put weekly in-person gatherings of the entire congregation for worship front-and-center. For this faith community, virtual worship is not an option. Capitol Hill Baptist Church takes no issue with the demonstrators or their right to freely protest—in fact many congregation members have participated in peaceful, religious demonstrations—it simply asks that its First Amendment rights be similarly respected.

Even-handed application of the Constitution

In June 2020, Capitol Hill Baptist Church applied for a waiver from the City’s restrictive policy against large gatherings, with the intention of holding outdoor services with appropriate safety precautions. In September, the church reapplied for the waiver. In September 2020 the City denied the church’s application.

On September 22, 2020 Capitol Hill Baptist Church filed a lawsuit against Mayor Bowser asking that its constitutional right to freely exercise its faith be respected in same way as the protestors’ right to freedom of speech. On October 6, 2020 Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, arguing that the City must provide a compelling reason to maintain its 100-person limit on outdoor, masked, and socially distanced religious gatherings even though it’s a national outlier, and even though the restrictions are not being applied evenly. A federal district court ruled in the church’s favor on October 9, 2020, allowing the church to gather for worship in a safe, socially-distanced outdoor setting.

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 non-religious entities, the government is violating the Free Exercise Clause by burdening religious practice.

Barker v. Conroy

A tradition dating back to the nation’s founding

Since 1789, the U.S. House of Representatives has included the traditional office of chaplain. Besides offering pastoral care to the members of the House—including presiding over memorials and funerals—the chaplain opens legislative sessions with a prayer. The practice of legislative prayer can be traced back to the time of the Founding Fathers, who did not see it as a forbidden “establishment of religion” but rather as a powerful reminder of their own limited political authority: the people’s inalienable rights did not come from government or its officials, but from a divine source that superseded government. Today, members of Congress are welcome to invite others to give the opening prayer with the chaplain’s permission, and people of many diverse faiths have done so over the years, including Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, and Muslims.

Anti-religion activist seeks to dismantle tradition

In February 2015, Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (best known for his anti-religious beliefs and his Foundation’s lawsuits that ridicule religion and religious people), attempted to disrupt over 200 years of tradition and requested to open a legislative session with a “non-prayer.” FFRF is a group that seeks to scrub public life of all references to religion, and Barker is a self-avowed atheist who has worked for years to dismantle religion and its presence in the public square, frequently through ridiculing religion and religious people. When the House chaplain rejected Barker’s request, Barker sued the House in district court in May 2016 arguing that he had the right to begin a legislative session with a non-prayer under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). He also claimed that the House’s practice of opening with prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The courts agree with Becket: Legislative prayer is constitutional

In May 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legislative prayer is constitutional in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case where Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending legislative prayer. This landmark case set a precedent for lower courts, and in October 2017, the district court properly ruled against Barker. Barker then appealed the Establishment Clause claim to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Thomas Hungar, general counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives defended.

In July 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief, explaining the clear constitutionality of legislative prayer as decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The brief also explains that the Establishment Clause is not triggered every time the government acknowledges or supports religion. Religious practices—like legislative prayer—that existed at our nation’s founding and were accepted by the drafters of the Establishment Clause do not violate the Establishment Clause. The Founders were concerned about eliminating religious coercion by the state, not about stripping religion from public life. Merely being exposed to other’s religious practices does not amount to coercion. This important distinction is critical to understanding the First Amendment and the founding generation’s understanding of the special role religion plays in our history, traditions, and culture.

The D.C. Circuit heard oral argument in October 2018. On April 19, 2019, the court unanimously ruled that the House of Representatives does not violate the Establishment Clause by requiring its opening prayer to be a religious prayer. The court’s ruling reinforces that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted in line with its historical meaning and that the founders would not have considered the longstanding tradition of legislative prayer to be an establishment of religion. It also affirms the legitimate place of religion in public life.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Public square: Because religious exercise is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. Religious expression, including legislative prayer, should not be treated as dangerous or scrubbed from our public discourse.

Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)

A reminder of the reason for the season

Every Christmas season, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., conducts a holiday campaign called “Find the Perfect Gift” to remind people of the religious meaning of Christmas and to invite them to give to those in need. The campaign includes extensive advertising in public spaces as well as on social media. Buying advertisements on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s buses and Metro subway cars is one of the most effective way for the Archdiocese to spread its message of giving and hope to the DC metro area.

Religious speech censored on the metro

But in 2017, as the Christmas season approached, the Metro denied the Archdiocese request to purchase ad space because of the campaign’s religious message. Metro’s 2015 ad policy bans any ad Metro deems controversial, including political, advocacy, and religious advertising. WMATA’s guidelines disqualified the Archdiocese from using ad space simply because the ads are religious. Ads about the secular or commercial meaning of Christmas – such as department store sales – were permitted, whereas religious ads encouraging generosity and service during the holiday season were prohibited. Although a secular organization can post meeting times, addresses, or contact information on a Metro ad, religious groups, including a monastery, were banned from doing the same thing.

In November 2017, represented by former Solictor General Paul Clement of Kirkland & Ellis, the Archdiocese of Washington sued the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) for banning religious speech. The district court denied a preliminary injunction and the Archdiocese appealed to the D.C. Circuit. In January 2018, Becket along with Arizona Senator Jeff Flake and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. (ISKCON), filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit defending the Archdiocese’s free exercise rights, arguing that the government does not get to arbitrarily exclude messages from the public square just because they are religious. Targeting and censoring religious messages violates the First Amendment.

Appeal to the Supreme Court

On July 31, 2018, the D.C. Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, stating that WMATA was justified in excluding religious advertising. The Archdiocese appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court on May 20, 2019.

Because not all nine justices could hear the case, the Supreme Court decided to not take the case. Along with the denial of certiorari, Justice Gorsuch stated that if they had agreed to intervene, “a reversal would be warranted.” He also stated that the “Constitution requires the government to respect religious speech, not to maximize advertising revenues…The one thing it cannot do is what it did here–permit a subject sure to inspire religious views, one that even WMATA is ‘half’ religious in nature, and then suppress those views. The First Amendment requires governments to protect religious viewpoints, not single them out for silencing.” 

Importance to religious liberty

  • Free speechFreedom of speech is not only an inherent human right, but also a fundamental building block of our society. The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when, and especially when, that view is unpopular. This involves religious speech as well.
  • Public squareReligious organizations must be free to operate in the public square according to their beliefs.

Belmont Abbey College v. Sebelius

Unconstitutional mandate threatens a Benedictine college

Founded by Benedictine monks, Belmont Abbey College celebrates a rich thousand-year-old monastic tradition of dedicated prayer and learning. Since 1876, the college has striven to carry out a clear mission: “That in all things God may be glorified.” But in 2011, Belmont Abbey’s right to live out its Catholic values was threatened by the federal government.

A new federal mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) required the Catholic college to provide services such as the week-after pill in its insurance plans. The HHS mandate forced Belmont Abbey to either violate the Catholic values that drives its mission or pay massive fines to the IRS.

Becket defends religious groups from government interference

As a Catholic liberal arts college, Belmont Abbey upholds the teachings of the Catholic Church, including the respect for all human life. Participating in a system to provide services such as contraception, sterilization, and abortion pills would contradict the Catholic mission it seeks to advance.

Although the government exempted certain religious employers, the requirements were extremely narrow, limited only to religious employers who primarily serve and employ those of their same faith. Belmont Abbey had no choice but to go to court to defend its right to remain true to its Catholic convictions. With Becket’s help, Belmont Abbey challenged the HHS mandate in federal court in November 2011.

In September 2012, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, granted a motion for expedited appeal. In December, the court handed an intermediate victory to Belmont Abbey when it commanded HHS to act quickly to fix the HHS Mandate. But after the government’s new promised accommodation still infringed on the Catholic university’s beliefs, Becket refiled Belmont Abbey’s lawsuit in November 2013. In January 2014, the D.C. Circuit stayed the case pending decisions in similar cases before the same court.

After joining a class-action lawsuit, Belmont Abbey College voluntarily dismissed their own case in November 2014.

On October 6, 2017, Health & Human Services issued a new rule with an exemption that protects religious ministries, in compliance with the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling and a Presidential Executive Order. In its new rule, the government admitted that it broke the law by trying to force religious groups to provide services in their health plans that violated their religious beliefs like the week-after pill. On November 7, 2018, the government finalized that rule, continuing to protect religious ministries.

Importance to religious liberty 

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that federal agencies cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs in order to further a government goal.  
  • Religious communitiesReligious communities have the right to organize and operate according to their beliefs without fear of government interference.
  • Individual freedomReligious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace and not just in houses of worship.

Singh v. McConville

Soldiers of faith and service

Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra are three Sikh soldiers who can now freely serve in the U.S. Army while following their faith.

Specialist Kanwar Singh was highly regarded for his ROTC service during college and achieved the highest possible score on the military entrance exam when applying to join the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Specialist Harpal Singh is fluent in Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu, all three of which are highly sought after by the Army. He also has significant expertise in telecommunications technologies, having deployed around the world—including to Ghana, Russia, and the Middle East—to develop telecommunications systems. Private Arjan Ghotra joined the Virginia Army National Guard at age seventeen after serving for several years in the Civil Air Patrol and the Virginia Defense Force.

All three men exemplify the values of the Army. Yet all three faced discrimination for wearing turbans, unshorn hair, and beards according to their faith.

Discriminating against the faithful

These three soldiers sought their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Passed in 1993 by President Clinton, RFRA prohibits the Army from suppressing a soldier’s sincere religious exercise without a compelling government reason.

In this instance the government had no good reason for discriminating against Sikh Americans. Nearly 100,000 soldiers have exemptions from the Army’s beard ban for medical reasons. Our military’s Special Forces commonly wear beards on the front lines in Afghanistan. And observant Sikhs have always served, and continue serving, in the militaries of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, and elsewhere. Canada’s current Secretary of Defense is a fully-bearded Sikh, who previously served alongside American forces in Afghanistan.

Becket defends Sikh soldiers

This is the second lawsuit launched by Becket in defense of Sikh Americans seeking to serve the country. In Singh v. Carter, Becket also represented decorated Army Captain Simratpal Singh, who filed a similar suit against the Army for the right to keep his beard according to his faith.

In March 2016, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra and their right to serve in the Army without abandoning their Sikh faith.

In April 2016, the Army took a historic step toward allowing Sikhs to serve in the military by accommodating Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Ghotra, at least long enough for them to complete basic training. In January 2017, that victory was made permanent when the Army issued new regulations stating that Sikh soldiers will not be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards throughout their military career.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Individual freedomIndividual religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith. Religious individuals must be free to follow their faith in all aspects of life, especially those who serve in our military to defend the freedom of all Americans. 
  • Public SquareBecause religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square. 
  • RFRAThe Religious Freedom Restoration Act ensures that the government cannot burden the religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives to doing so.  

Singh v. Carter

Torn between serving country and living out faith 

Military service has a rich legacy within the Sikh tradition: observant Sikhs have served in the U.S. military from at least World War I through the Vietnam War. For Captain Simratpal “Simmer” Singh, a committed Sikh, the legacy is also personal, as military service runs strong in his family. Endorsed by his local congressman, Simmer was accepted into West Point in 2006. But a 30-year ban on beards threatened Simmer’s ability to serve. 

As a child, Simmer Singh wore the  patka, a small turban worn by Sikh children to cover their unshorn hair. In high school, he began wearing a full turban and beard—also core “articles of faith” in the Sikh religion—to remind him of the inherent dignity and equality of every individual before God. He expected to wear these articles of faith to his death – until he joined the Army. Simmer believed that he would be given a religious accommodation for his unshorn hair, beard, and turban, but on Reception Day he was told he had to cut his hair and shave or leave the Academy. Compelled on the spot to choose between serving his country and his faith—a decision no American should have to make—he chose to serve, committing to reclaim his articles of faith at the earliest opportunity. 

Captain Singh went on to serve with distinction for more than ten years. He completed both Ranger School and Special Forces Assessment and Selection Courses, received a Bronze Star Medal for clearing IEDs in Afghanistan, and attained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. 

RFRA protects Sikhs who serve 

In 2015, Simmer learned about his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute passed by a bipartisan Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993 with the support of an extensive coalition of religious and civil rights groups. RFRA prohibits the Army from suppressing an individual’s sincere religious exercise without a compelling government reason. 

In this case, the Army had no good reason for discriminating against Sikh Americans by banning their religious beard, since it gave nearly 100,000 soldiers exemptions from its beard ban for medical reasons. Special Forces Operators commonly wear beards on the front lines in Afghanistan. And observant Sikhs have continually served in the militaries of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, and throughout the world. In fact, Canadian Minister of National Defense Harjit Singh Sajjan is a fully-bearded Sikh and previously served alongside American forces in Afghanistan. 

Victory for Sikh soldiers 

In October 2015, Becket, along with the Sikh Coalition and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, petitioned the Army to grant Captain Singh a religious accommodation. In December 2015, the Army  issued  a one-month accommodation under RFRA, but then shortly after, ordered Simmer to undergo a series of discriminatory tests that other soldiers who wore beards for medical reasons were not required to complete. 

On February 29, 2016, Becket, McDermott, and the Sikh Coalition  filed a lawsuit  on Simmer’s behalf to block the discriminatory testing and to obtain a permanent accommodation.  Days later, in a rare move against the Army, the court ordered the Department of Defense to cease all discriminatory testing against Captain Singh because of his religious beard and granted him  temporary protection  while the case was ongoing. In March 2016, Becket filed a similar lawsuit in  Singh v. McConville  on behalf of Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra and their right to serve in the Army without abandoning their Sikh articles of faith. 

Following the court ruling, the Army granted Simmer a longer accommodation that allowed him to serve with his religious beard, unshorn hair, and turban for up to one year. On January 4, 2017, that victory became permanent when the Army issued new regulations stating that Sikh soldiers will not be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards throughout their military career.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Individual freedomIndividual religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith. Religious individuals must be free to follow their faith in all aspects of life, especially those who serve in our military to defend the freedom of all Americans. 
  • Public SquareBecause religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square. 
  • RFRAThe Religious Freedom Restoration Act ensures that the government cannot burden the religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives to doing so.  

Third Church of Christ, Scientist v. District of Columbia

After years of litigation, Washington DC’s Third Church of Christ, Scientist finally won its battle with DC preservationists, and will soon enjoy a new church building. Its previous building was an eyesore with the dubious honor of being a landmark of the “Brutalist” style, a 1960s French school that emphasizes large expanses of windowless raw concrete. The previous bunker-like structure had blighted a corner just a few blocks north of the White House for forty years, and was often mistaken by unwitting tourists for a fallout shelter.

Originally an architectural “experiment”, the church building was first designed without the local congregation’s input into the architect’s ‘artistic vision.’ The Brutalist structure thus never met the church’s needs and in fact sent a message counter to the church’s. Instead of welcoming visitors and newcomers and portraying the church as a positive contribution to the neighborhood, the imposing concrete building had few windows, an entrance that was difficult to find, and a stifling atmosphere. It was frequently compared to a “concrete straitjacket.”

When the congregation first decided that it could no longer suffer the Brutalist structure and attempted to replace it, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board retaliated by designating the building as a landmark—forcing the church to preserve a building that was unwelcoming and unstable. That’s when Becket stepped in to defend the church.

The church argued that the preservation board was interfering with its First Amendment right to exercise its religion. The building’s imposing architecture hampered the church’s message and its ministry. Religious liberty required that the church be able to decide how best to use its property in accordance with its faith.

Finally, in 2014, after several years of litigation, the Church prevailed. It demolished the old Brutalist bunker and began the process of building a new, light-filled building. It has hired world-renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern to design a new building that meets the needs of a downtown church while also contributing to the beauty of the surrounding area. Now the church can move forward in its mission, celebrating a hard-fought victory for both beauty and religious liberty.

*Photo Credit: Third Church of Christ Scientist (rodeomilano, creative commons)

Lt. Ryan Berry v. U.S. Air Force

Lt. Ryan Berry, 26, is a West Point graduate who followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Air Force to become a nuclear missileer. Berry morally objected to sex-integrated silo duty where each missile silo had one bed and toilet facilities shielded only by a retractable curtain — rendering privacy minimal. Berry sought counsel from the base Catholic chaplain who agreed that mixing of the sexes among silo crews was improper and a likely occasion of sin.

From May 1997 to December 1998, Berry’s religious waiver was honored and he worked silo duty exclusively with men. He received excellent job performance evaluations. Then several squadron members complained about “preferential” treatment, and the new wing commander, Col. Ronald Haeckel, refused to continue Berry’s religious accommodation.

In an April job performance review, Haeckel blasted Berry for “unacceptable professionalism.” He wrote that Berry “refuses to accept personal responsibilities … (and) will not perform duties with fully qualified female crew members.” Berry was then decertified from working with nuclear missiles and assigned to a desk job.

Recognizing a violation of Lt. Berry’s religious liberty, Becket stepped in to negotiate a favorable settlement for Berry with the U.S. Air Force.

Rigdon v. Perry

Priests and rabbis must be free to preach

In May 1996, the Catholic Church announced a nationwide pro-life campaign to urge Congress to override the President’s veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. The campaign urged priests to preach about abortion, lead prayer services, and invite parishioners to write to their Congressional representatives.

Father Vincent Rigdon, a Catholic priest of almost 20 years and U.S. Air Force Chaplain, joined the campaign. As a military chaplain, he regularly provided spiritual counseling and celebrated mass for servicemembers and their families. Preaching about abortion, an issue important to the Catholic Church, was no different. Yet in June 1996, the Pentagon issued a gag order forbidding military chaplains of all faiths from preaching freely about legislation on important moral issues.

The act also barred Rabbi David Kaye, a Jewish rabbi and military chaplain, from speaking about abortion to his congregation. Torn between following a moral imperative and a military order, Fr. Rigdon and Rabbi Kaye had no choice but to go to court to defend their freedom to preach.

Becket defends muzzled military chaplains from Pentagon gag order

In September 1996, Becket sued on behalf of Fr. Rigdon, Rabbi Kaye, the Muslim American Military Academy, and several service members arguing that the gag order violated the chaplains’ rights under the First Amendment and under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In April 1997, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with Becket that the gag order was an unconstitutional restriction of their free speech and free exercise rights.

Censoring sermons is unconstitutional. Every chaplain must be free to speak as their faith dictates, whether from the pulpit or inside the confessional. Thanks to Becket and the First Amendment, military chaplains are free to preach according to their conscience.

Learn more about this case by listening to our Podcast episode, “Orders and Obedience.”

Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Free Speech: The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when that view is unpopular. Chaplains must be free to preach without government censorship.
  • Individual Freedom: Becket defends the right of all individuals to live according to their consciences without government coercion. In this case, chaplains must be free to exercise their faith by addressing important moral issues.