Judge Blasts Air Force Over Denying Vaccine Religious Exemption Requests, Grants Injunction

By The Center Square
The Center Square
The Center Square
The Center Square was launched in May 2019 to fulfill the need for high-quality statehouse and statewide news across the United States. The focus of our work is state- and local-level government and economic reporting. www.thecentersquare.com
February 24, 2022 Updated: February 24, 2022

U.S. District Court Judge Tilman Self, III, is the first to stop the U.S. Air Force from enforcing its military COVID-19 vaccine mandate on a service member.

Self granted a preliminary injunction against the U.S. Department of Defense on behalf of an Air Force officer who’d been denied a religious exemption to the mandate. As a result, the DOD can’t enforce the mandate or take any adverse action against her, including forcing her to retire.

At the beginning of his 32-page order, the judge describes how the plaintiff’s chain of command justified why she was denied a religious exemption: “Your religious beliefs are sincere, it’s just not compatible with military service.”

“That’s about as blunt as it gets,” Self wrote in his ruling. “True, he undoubtedly spoke for himself, but when considering the Air Force’s abysmal record regarding religious accommodations requests, it turns out he was dead on target.”

Although the Air Force has claimed to provide a religious accommodation process, “it proved to be nothing more than a quixotic quest for Plaintiff because it was ‘by all accounts, . . . theater,’” Self wrote, citing U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s Jan. 3, 2022, assessment in another case, U.S. Navy SEALs 1–26 v. Biden, on the U.S. Navy’s religious accommodation process, or lack thereof.

In the Navy SEAL case, the latest filings received by the court as of Feb. 4 reveal that out of 24,818 religious exemption requests the four branches received, only four were granted. While religious exemptions continued to be denied, 4,146 medical exemptions were granted.

“Despite thousands of requests for religious exemption, the Air Force hadn’t granted a single one of them when Plaintiff filed her Complaint,” Self, who presides over the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Macon Division, said.

At the end of the hearing on the preliminary injunction request, Self said he informed the parties that he’d closed the window to receive evidence. But six days later, the Biden administration ignored his decision.

“Undeterred, Defendants filed the Declaration of Colonel Jason A. Holbrook … six days later, informing the Court that “as of Feb. 4, 2022, nine … religious accommodation requests … have been approved within’ the Air Force,” he said.

By adding this evidence, Self said, “That raises the Air Force’s percentage of granted religious exemptions from 0.00 percent to about 0.24 percent. So, suffice it to say, Defendants’ last-minute efforts to inject something new into the record doesn’t change the Court’s opinion because what Col. Holbrook’s declaration doesn’t tell the Court is when the Air Force granted these nine religious exemptions.”

Since the Air Force didn’t state when the requests were granted, Self decided to find out for himself. He looked up the data on the Air Force’s COVID-19 website and discovered that as of Jan. 31, 2022, “the Air Force had yet to approve a single religious exemption.”

“In other words, the Air Force granted these nine exemptions in the last two weeks,” he said.

Thomas More Society Senior Counsel Stephen Crampton notes that the Air Force had granted over 1,500 medical exemptions by the time they filed the lawsuit, but not one religious exemption had been granted.

Self’s scathing rebuke was rendered in a case filed on Jan. 6 by Thomas More Society on behalf of an officer who served her country for over 25 years. The lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Air Force and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and alleges that the U.S. Military is violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the First Amendment, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The officer objects to taking the COVID-19 shots due to their association with aborted fetal cells and filed for a religious exemption. Although she’s been willing and able to work remotely, wear a mask and test periodically, the Air Force issued a final denial of her religious exemption request in December.

When denying her appeal, she was given less than one week to decide to take the vaccine, submit a retirement request, or refuse the shot in writing. The Air Force also informed her that “any refusal to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, absent an approved exemption, may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice . . .” and that “continued refusal will result in involuntary reassignment to the Individual Ready Reserve without pay, benefits, or regular responsibilities,” according to the brief.

The plaintiff argues the Air Force’s policy is forcing her to choose between her job and her faith, and the Constitution and RFRA protect her from having to make this choice.

She argues that she “has a sincere religious belief that prohibits her from submitting to an injection of any of the presently available COVID-19 vaccines” and the Air Force’s requirement puts “substantial pressure” on her “to modify [her] behavior and to violate [her] beliefs.”

Self said, “A classic case of ‘substantial pressures’ occurs when a person has to choose between her job and her religion,” and the Defendants “don’t say much in response” to this argument. “In fact, as of Feb. 7, 2022, “the Air Force has administratively separated 142 active duty Airmen” for refusing to take a vaccine,” he points out, citing Air Force data.

“And, how could they?” he asks. “Very few scenarios paint a bleaker picture than giving up your livelihood in order to follow your religious beliefs.”

Crampton said it’s “disgraceful how the military, in general, has disrespected fundamental First Amendment rights. We are grateful that the court has restored the Free Exercise rights of this courageous officer and are hopeful that her victory will help to protect the rights of conscientious objectors everywhere.”

The lawsuit is one of many filed after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued an Aug. 24 memo directing “the Secretaries of the Military Departments to immediately begin full vaccination of all members of the Armed Forces under DoD authority on active duty or in the Ready Reserve, including the National Guard, who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”

The White House and Austin have yet to issue statements on the lawsuit.

By Bethany Blankley

The Center Square was launched in May 2019 to fulfill the need for high-quality statehouse and statewide news across the United States. The focus of our work is state- and local-level government and economic reporting. www.thecentersquare.com