A federal appeals court on Feb. 28 rejected an attempt by President Joe Biden's administration to partially lift a block on the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for a group of Navy SEALs.
At the time of the ruling, the Navy had granted zero religious exemptions. As of Feb. 23, it had still granted none.
Nonetheless, officials asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to allow the military to take into account the unvaccinated status of the 35 members when making "deployment, assignment and other operational decisions." They argued that "forcing the Navy to deploy plaintiffs while they are unvaccinated threatens the success of critical missions and needlessly endangers the health and safety of other service members.”
The Navy has "has effectively stacked the deck against even those exemptions supported by Plaintiffs’ immediate commanding officers and military chaplains," emphasizing the futility of pursuing exemptions, the panel said. Further, letting 35 unvaccinated members deploy wouldn't seriously impede military function because over 5,000 other members are still on duty despite being unvaccinated, they added.
"Defendants have not demonstrated 'paramount interests' that justify vaccinating these 35 Plaintiffs against COVID-19 in violation of their religious beliefs," the ruling stated.
The panel consisted of Judges Edith Jones, a Reagan nominee; Stuart Duncan, a Trump nominee; and Kurt Engelhardt, a Trump nominee.
Mike Berry, director of military affairs for First Liberty Institute, which is representing the plaintiffs, said the group was grateful for the ruling.
“The purge of religious servicemembers is not just devastating to morale, but it harms America’s national security. It’s time for our military to honor its constitutional obligations and grant religious accommodations for service members with sincere religious objections to the vaccine," Berry said in a statement.
The Navy declined to comment.