Air Force Denies 2,130 Religious Exemptions to Vaccine Mandate

By Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Reporter
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist and currently a news reporter at The Epoch Times. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
December 23, 2021 Updated: December 23, 2021

The Air Force has denied 2,130 requests for religious exemptions to the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which is compelling a large portion of the U.S. military to receive a vaccine, the service said.

In a press release published on Wednesday, the Air Force said it has so far received a total of 10,000 requests, of which “approximately 2,100 have been disapproved due to military readiness considerations.”

It said each request is reviewed individually by Religious Resolution Teams at the wing, garrison, major command, and field command levels, which are made up of chaplains, medical providers, judge advocates, and other subject matter experts.

“Religious Resolution Teams make recommendations on determining the least restrictive means possible to accommodate a sincerely held belief without putting mission accomplishment at risk,” the service said.

Under Secretary of the Air Force, Gina Ortiz Jones, said in a statement that each member’s request is “carefully considered” to “balance the government’s compelling interest in mission accomplishment with the service member’s sincerely held belief.”

“Although the chaplain may advise the member’s belief is sincere, MAJCOM and FLDCOM commanders have to balance that member’s interests against the overall impact on operational readiness, health and safety of members and good order and discipline within the unit,” said Jones.

The release notes that all members are able to appeal the decision to the Air Force Surgeon General.

As of Wednesday, more than 95 percent of the U.S. Air Force had been vaccinated, the press release said, noting that the deadline for active-duty Airmen and Guardians to be vaccinated was Nov. 2, while Air Force Reserve Airmen had until Dec. 2 to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and the deadline for Air National Guard members was extended to Dec. 31.

The Pentagon faces multiple lawsuits over the mandates, including a class-action suit filed in federal court in Florida on Oct. 15.

Lawyers representing armed forces members who are seeking exemptions say the military is violating the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and are urging courts to intervene.

“It’s now the point where I think we can call it what it is. It appears to be blatant religious discrimination when the military has now conceded, both publicly and in court filings I should say, that they have approved multiple numerous medical and administrative exemptions but yet they have refused to approve any religious accommodations,” Mike Berry, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, told The Epoch Times.

“That’s textbook definition of religious discrimination.”

First Liberty Institute brought a suit last month on behalf of dozens of Navy personnel, alleging the Biden administration has violated federal law in its refusal to grant exemptions to troops on the basis of their religion. Another lawsuit was filed by Liberty Counsel on similar grounds.

According to an Epoch Times review, as of Dec. 22, military branches granted 12,109 medical or administrative exemptions. Spokespersons for each branch confirmed this week that zero religious exemptions have been granted.

The Epoch Times has contacted the Pentagon for comment.

Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.

Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist and currently a news reporter at The Epoch Times. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.