After being denied a religious exemption to the Air Force’s COVID vaccine mandate, Master Sgt. Vincent White has chosen to face a court martial rather than accept the Air Force’s non-judicial punishment.
White entered the Air Force in 2009 and has quickly risen to the rank of master sergeant, which makes him a senior non-commissioned officer (NCO), a level that is “reserved for those who set the highest standards of personal integrity, loyalty, leadership, dedication and devotion to duty, including upholding Air Force policies, traditions and standards.” White currently serves in the role of section chief of customer support, leading a team of airmen that liaise with the Air Force Personnel Center and the Air Force Special Operations Command on 19 Department of Defense-level programs in support of 45,000 military members, civilians, retirees, and their families.
Yet because White applied for a religious exemption based on his sincerely held Christian beliefs and because the Air Force denied that exemption, he may lose his position, his rank, his career, and his honor. After his appeal was also denied and he continued to refuse to the take the shot, White was given a letter of reprimand (LOR), an official written censure that effectively blocks an airman from being considered for or receiving any future promotions.
After receiving a second LOR, White was issued a non-judicial punishment under Article 15, which would allow the Air Force to take away White’s rank or pay and assign him extra duty. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), an airman can request a court-martial trial instead of accepting the punishment, and White has chosen this option.
White’s attorney, R. Davis Younts, said, “This is next-level coercion on the part of the Air Force.”
He further explained, “The Letter of Reprimand is a punishment, an adverse action, but it’s a piece of paper that doesn’t have an immediate effect. Now you are punishing people with the threat of taking their rank away, their pay away, giving them extra duties and working long hours.”
“This is true punishment because of religious faith and what is worse is they either have to get the vaccine, accept punishment that’ll be harsh because they won’t get a fair hearing, or face a court-martial. The military fails to recognize no fully approved FDA vaccine has been produced. They are doubling down on their lies to airmen to force them to get the vaccine. The only way for a fair hearing is to turn [the Article 15 punishment] down and demand a trial.”
Younts told the Standing for Freedom Center that Master Sgt. White turned in his response yesterday. Younts expects the Air Force “to either back down or charge him within the next week.”
Meanwhile, federal judges have granted injunctions blocking punishment against military service member by the different military branches, including the Air Force. U.S. District Judge Thomas Rose recently blocked the Air Force was taking any adverse action against 2nd Lt. Michael Poffenbarger. U.S. District Court Judge Matthew McFarland also granted an injunction in response to a suit brought by 18 other officers seeking a religious exemption while stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB. “No disciplinary or separation measures can be taken against these folks,” attorney Christopher Wiest said. “A class action motion is pending to extend it to all of the Air Force,” he added.
Unfortunately, Younts explained, no federal judge has yet granted a broad injunction protecting all religious airmen or other military servicemembers from punishment, which means that White’s superiors are currently free to punish White or to go forward with the court martial. If they opt not to court martial him, they must rescind the Article 15 reprimand and punishment.
McFarland said, “Plaintiffs continue to face serious repercussions by refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine in light of defendants’ denial of their religious exemptions.”
Plaintiffs have accused the Air Force of a double standard because it has granted administrative and medical exemptions, but not religious exemptions. Their argument is backed up by statistics. As of March 28, the Air Force had granted 1,102 exemptions for medical issues and 1,407 for administrative reasons, but just 25 exemptions for religious beliefs.
The government continues to show that it has no respect for religious beliefs or religious freedom. That sadly has included the Department of Defense. Servicemen and servicewomen devote their lives to serving their country, being willing even to die for it, yet the government won’t accommodate their sincerely held religious beliefs. With over 96 percent of the Air Force vaccinated, why do the remaining members even need to be vaccinated? Could it be because the vaccine has been shown to be relatively ineffective at stopping infection or transmission and that this is more about compliance than advancing the military mission?
It is time for the government to stop persecuting the faithful and faith-filled men and women of our military and honor the promise of freedom they fight to protect.