COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadlines have come and gone, but the U.S. military still hasn’t approved a single religious exemption.
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.”
Taken together, military branches have granted 12,109 medical or administrative exemptions, according to an Epoch Times review. Spokespersons for each branch confirmed this week that zero religious exemptions have been granted, while hundreds have been denied.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in August ordered troops to get a COVID-19 vaccine, describing it as a military readiness issue. Each branch then set deadlines for getting vaccinated or applying for an exemption. Deadlines have passed for all active-duty troops; reserve components apart from the Air Force have later deadlines.
Servicemen and servicewomen trying to get religious exemptions say they’ve been told it’s pointless to apply. Some have hired lawyers and sued the federal government.
First Liberty Institute brought a suit in November 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.
So far, the suits haven’t succeeded in blocking the mandate, although judges have questioned why the military has denied hundreds of requests and granted none.
It’s “quite plausible” that plaintiffs’ contention that the military’s processes for adjudicating religious exemption requests “will result inevitably in the undifferentiated (and therefore unlawful under RFRA) denial of each service member’s request,” based on current data, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, a George W. Bush nominee, wrote in a November order.
Merryday didn’t enter a preliminary injunction, which the suing troops sought, but ordered the Pentagon to provide the court with details on religious exemption requests beginning on Jan. 7, 2022. He also indicated he may issue an injunction at a later time.
Berry hopes the courts intervene. He said the treatment of troops “shows that the military now believes that’s it’s above the law.”
Military officials say no service members with pending exemption requests face adverse action. They also insist they’re following the RFRA and other applicable laws.
“They are always rare, religious exemptions,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters earlier this month. “This has absolutely nothing to do with trampling on the religious liberties of our men and women in uniform.”
Kirby directed reporters to reach out to each branch, asserting that the handling of exemption requests isn’t handled centrally.
In an emailed statement, Priscilla Rodriguez, a Navy spokeswoman, told The Epoch Times that the branch “supports and respects the beliefs and religious practices of our Sailors.”
“Waivers for immunizations are balanced with operational readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety. When this interferes with a member’s right to practice their faith according to the dictates of their conscience, the Navy works with the member to find ways to accommodate religious practice that are the least burdensome way possible for the member,” she said.
“All requests for religious accommodation, to include the COVID vaccine mandate, are handled in the same manner.”