US Air Force Grants 9 Religious Exemptions to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate While Over 3,000 Requests Rejected

By Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
February 8, 2022Updated: February 9, 2022

The Air Force on Tuesday said it has approved nine religious exemptions from taking the COVID-19 vaccine, while more than 3,000 requests have been rejected so far.

According to data from the Air Force, eight of the exemptions to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate were granted after being submitted, and a further religious exemption was approved after an appeal.

A total of 3,222 religious accommodation requests have been rejected, and the Air Force is processing 2,556 pending requests for exemptions and 732 pending appeals.

The Air Force is the second U.S. military branch to approve religious exemptions to the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine, although the nine approved so far represent just a tiny fraction of the more than 6,400 requested by Air Force troops.

“The Department of the Air Force determined the service members’ accommodations could be supported with no impact to mission readiness,” a statement Tuesday said.

The Marine Corps is the only other military service to grant any religious accommodations, allowing three so far. On Jan. 13, it granted religious exemptions to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, nearly two months after the vaccination deadline for active-duty Marines.

The Army and Navy have not approved any religious exemptions. As of Jan. 26, the Army had rejected 266 requests for permanent religious exemptions.

The Navy in its latest release on Feb. 2 noted that there have been 118 “separations” so far for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. Court documents dated Feb. 3 note out of 4,095 total initial requests, the Navy has denied 3,278, and 285 are under review.

As of Feb. 3, a total of 3,458 requests for religious accommodation out of 3,539 initial requests have been rejected by the U.S. Marine Corps, while 81 requests are pending review, court papers show.

The U.S. Coast Guard has denied 578 of 1,308 initial requests for religious exemption from the vaccine mandate, and 715 requests are under review.

The Air Force’s latest data states that as of Feb. 7, the Air Force has “administratively separated” 142 active-duty airmen.

A total of 97.8 percent of active-duty airmen are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, with 96 percent of the Air Force vaccinated overall, the latest statistics show.

U.S. Forces
A U.S. Air Force member receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, on Dec. 29, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Betty R. Chevalier via Getty Images)

The military services have come under criticism for their failure to grant religious exemptions, with members of Congress, the military, and the public questioning if the review processes have been fair. Altogether, the services have received more than 14,000 requests for religious exemptions.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and military leaders have argued that the vaccine is critical to maintaining military readiness and the health of the force. And all of the services have now either discharged personnel for refusing the vaccine or put a system in place to do so.

Austin announced the mandate in August 2021, but every branch had resisted granting religious accommodations, sparking lawsuits and allegations that the military was violating federal law by discriminating against religious troop members.

The Marine Corps has discharged 469, the Air Force has discharged 179 and the Navy has discharged 118, according to data released in the last week. The number includes active-duty personnel and entry-level recruits who were still in boot camp. The Army has issued more than 3,000 formal letters of reprimand, and fired six soldiers, but has not discharged anyone yet.

Zachary Stieber and The Associated Press contributed to this report.