A group of Air Force members who are refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine has asked a federal court to block the military from punishing them, saying the vaccination order is unconstitutional.
Each plaintiff has sincere religious beliefs that prohibit them from receiving the vaccine, according to the recently filed complaint.
“Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs generally fall into the following categories: (1) opposition to abortion and the use of fetal cell lines in development of the vaccine; (2) belief that the mRNA technology utilized in some COVID-19 vaccines usurps God’s creation of the human genome; and (3) that the body is a temple, and taking the vaccine would defile that temple,” the complaint reads.
But their requests for religious accommodation from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s vaccination order were all denied.
The group, which includes Bryan Spence, an F-16 instructor pilot; Alan Sosebee, a chief of training at the U.S. Air Force Academy; and Christopher Wu, a lawyer at Joint Base Andrews, wants the court to order the military not to punish or kick out members who aren’t complying with the order, even if their exemption requests were rejected.
“Like many servicemembers, I want to continue faithfully serving my country as I have proudly done for the past 10 years,” Danielle Runyan, a member of the Air Force Reserve, counsel for First Liberty Institute, and one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “As the Supreme Court has already recognized, ‘even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.'”
First Liberty and law firm Schaerr Jaffe are representing the group, which lodged the suit in federal court in northern Texas.
Department of Defense and the Air Force officials declined to comment.
About 1.5 percent of the Air Force was unvaccinated as of May 17.
About 2,000 administrative and medical exemption requests have been granted. Just 66 religious exemptions have been approved, while more than 6,000 have been rejected.
The Air Force has separated about 383 members for refusing the vaccine.
According to the suit, Spence, a lieutenant colonel based in Aledo, Texas, was informed days after submitting his exemption request that not complying with the vaccination order could prevent him from being deployed and could lead to punishments such as letters of reprimand. His request was denied on Dec. 1, 2021, and an appeal submitted seven days later is still pending.
Lt. Tyler Stef, another plaintiff, is being barred from completing pilot instructor training because of not being vaccinated. He’s without a job title and performing rote duties.
Stef has evidence that he’s recovered from COVID-19, which means that he has some level of protection against reinfection—more protection than the vaccines give, according to studies—but he can’t obtain an exemption based on the natural immunity. Stef’s request for a religious exemption was denied on Feb. 9 and his appeal was denied on March 21.
Stef has submitted allergy tests that show he reacts to ingredients in the vaccines, but he was accused of feigning the allergies, according to the suit. A military doctor found that he could get a vaccine, but Stef has “decided to stay true to his religious convictions” and as a result, faces punishment if the court doesn’t intervene.
Ryan Corcoran, an Air Force major based in Texas, was denied a religious exemption on March 2. His commander has indicated that the Air Force is preparing a reprimand.