A total of 42 military chaplains are suing the Department of Defense (DOD) over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, arguing that it violates their constitutional rights to freedom of belief and other laws protecting religious freedom.
Vietnam War veteran and attorney Arthur A. Schulcz Sr., who's representing the chaplains, said they're seeking a preliminary injunction to bar the vaccine mandate across all branches of service. Thus far, federal judges in other cases have issued preliminary injunctions to the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, preventing them from punishing service members in those branches who have sought religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate.
Having been a pastor for 20 years and an Army chaplain for the previous 20 months, he considers the lawsuit a bellwether case on the resiliency of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Hirko said he's the only unvaccinated chaplain seeking religious accommodation to the mandate at Fort Campbell, home of the elite 101st Airborne Division. He said he was “honored to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other 41 plaintiffs who want to serve God and country.”
In August 2021, he submitted a religious accommodation request, which was subsequently denied in March. An appeal is still pending. He has also helped process the religious accommodation requests of many other service members who have also been denied or are still waiting for a response.
As Hirko pressed on to take a stand against the military’s vaccine mandate, he discovered that “there are many, many other chaplains across the different branches [of the military] that also want to serve God and country and wanted to make sure that religious freedoms were also protected.”
“All 42 of us are fighting for not only our own religious freedoms and convictions in the military but also for all the service members that we serve,” he said. “If we can’t ultimately help other service members in this fight, we don’t believe that we’ve done our job.”
The chaplains in this case are “united” and “praying through it,” according to Hirko.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure America’s service members are taken care of,” he said.
According to Hirko, “this case shows that there are a number of chaplains within the Armed Forces that deeply cares about its members and their religious freedom.” It's his desire that the case “will send ripple effects” throughout the Armed Forces and allow for religious freedom to prevail.
There are many reasons why service members are refusing the vaccine, including an objection to the use of aborted fetal cell lines used in testing and development, the use of mRNA “gene therapy,” its experimental nature, and others, he said.
“For those of us who stand firm against the vaccine, we don't believe it’s too much to ask to serve our country without having to compromise our religious convictions,” Hirko said.
Schulcz agreed, saying that “the liberty Hirko—and each of the other chaplains—enjoy was given to them by God, and the Constitution offers protection of such liberty with the First Amendment.”
“The government should be neutral towards religion and not hinder it,” the attorney said. “Everyone has a right to follow his conscience, which is in fact, a religious issue.”
In one of the lawsuit’s causes of action, the plaintiffs argue that “the Department of Defense has failed to implement Section 533 of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) since its inception,” Schulcz said.
“Section 533 established the right of military personnel to follow their conscience as long as it did not impact on good order and discipline. It protects chaplains’ decisions that emanate from their conscience as formed by their faith.”
Any retaliation against chaplains is forbidden by section 533, he said. This includes blanket denials of religious accommodation requests, promotion requests, and training opportunities.
The attorney likened the spirit of the chaplains’ legal fight to that embarked by the country’s Founding Fathers.
“Our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, is actually a declaration of dependence on the God who formed the conscience of our Founders,” Schulcz said.
“Their conscience told them that their treatment by Great Britain and King George offended their understanding of who they were as men and women created in the image of God. It also violated their rights as Englishmen, and it was their duty was to oppose such a tyranny.”
Like the nation’s Founders, the chaplains are “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions in accord with their conscience as formed by their faith,” according to Schulcz.
“They too are fighting a tyranny hostile to people of faith,” he said.
A hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Sept. 28 in courtroom 701 at the Eastern District of Virginia courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Hirko and Schulcz are inviting the public to attend the court hearing if they wish to show support for the chaplains in their fight against the vaccine mandate. The address is 401 Courthouse Square, Alexandria.
The Pentagon didn't respond to a request for comment.