Federal judge puts halt to vaccine mandates for Navy Seals who applied for — and were all denied — religious exemptions

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A federal judge granted a temporary injunction against a Department of Defense vaccine mandate requiring Navy SEALs to be vaccinated for COVID-19, after no SEALs were awarded a religious exemption.


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O’Connor sided with the SEALs on Monday, saying, “Our nation asks the men and women in our military to serve, suffer, and sacrifice. But we do not ask them to lay aside their citizenry and give up the very rights they have sworn to protect.” 

He continued, “Thirty-five Navy Special Warfare servicemembers allege that the military’s mandatory vaccination policy violates their religious freedoms under the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Navy provides a religious accommodation process, but by all accounts, it is theater. The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory. It merely rubber stamps each denial.”

He added,

“The Navy servicemembers 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.”

O’Connor noted that 99.4 percent of servicemembers are vaccinated and that many of the SEALs’ commanding officers recommended their requests be approved, yet the Navy still denied them. Even if the exemptions had been approved, the soldiers still would need a medical waiver in order to be deployed.

Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, which represents the SEALs said, 

“Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values. Punishing SEALs for simply asking for a religious accommodation is purely vindictive and punitive. We’re pleased that the court has acted to protect our brave warriors before more damage is done to our national security.”

If SEALs are denied an exemption and still refuse the vaccine, they could be forced to pay back what the government has spent training them.

Berry said, “After all these elite warriors have done to defend our freedoms, the Navy is now threatening their careers, families, and finances. It’s appalling and it has to stop.”

The judge called out the 6-phase, 50-step process the Navy uses to decide these cases, noting that Phase 1 requires an administrator to update a prepared disapproval template. Some claim that the Navy uses this process as a blanket disapproval method. O’Connor mentioned that the Navy hasn’t granted a single religious exemption to a vaccine in the past seven years.

The Navy isn’t the only branch drawing criticism, as the Air Force has been accused of a similar blanket denial. In response to one officer’s request for an exemption, the Air Force stated, “Vaccination is the least restrictive means of furthering the military’s compelling governmental interest.”

They added that while COVID-19 prevention could be accomplished through other means, those methods would not be as effective.

Yet in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in February, Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro said, “The services and the commands have worked very hard over the last year to make sure that we can operate in a COVID environment, before vaccines were available.”

He continued, “The addition of the vaccine should make us more capable in that environment. But we’ve already demonstrated over the last year that we’re fully capable of operating in a COVID environment.”

This case is just one of several brought against the DoD and military service branches on behalf of servicemembers who don’t want to take the vaccine. In October, a federal judge for Washington D.C.’s District Court halted any termination or disciplinary actions towards civilians or military personnel who apply for religious or medical exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

What is being done to our military men and women is disgraceful, and Judge O’Connor should be applauded for standing up for their rights. Given what these servicemembers have sacrificed for our country it is gross ingratitude for their rights to be disrespected and for them to be removed from service or forced to pay the government back for their training because the government chose to violate their religious freedom.

Such a foolish policy not only harms our brave men and women in the service, but it threatens national security, military readiness, and our ability to respond quickly and effectively to adversarial threats.

Let’s hope this judge’s ruling to force the DoD and the Navy to rethink its current COVID vaccination policy and stop treating its most dedicated special forces operators as assets to be used and thrown away if they happen to hold and stand up for closely held religious beliefs that guide their personal principles and actions.