Navy Reassigns Commander Who Won’t Get COVID-19 Vaccine After Supreme Court Win

Navy Reassigns Commander Who Won’t Get COVID-19 Vaccine After Supreme Court Win
Navy personnel prepare doses of a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in New York City on Feb. 24, 2021. (Seth Wenig/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

The U.S. Navy recently reassigned a commander who is fighting the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate after the Supreme Court overturned a lower court order that barred a reassignment, according to the officer’s lawyer.

The commander was informed by a superior on April 8 that the Navy was reassigning him to shore command, the lawyer said in a declaration to the court.

“On Monday, April 11, instead of getting underway with his ship, Navy commander was ’temporarily reassigned' for 60 days under a new Navy policy that prohibits unvaccinated personnel from going underway on Navy ships,” the lawyer said.

The Navy said in late 2021 that service members who haven’t gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, even if they’ve been granted exemptions, may be reassigned “based on operational readiness and mission requirements.”

The commander successfully won relief from reassignment or demotion in February from U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, the George H.W. Bush appointee who is overseeing the case.

The ruling came because the Navy appeared to have “wrongfully denied” the officer’s request for a religious exemption from mandatory COVID-19 vaccination, the judge said.

The order meant the warship the officer commanded couldn’t be deployed, the military later claimed, although the ship was said to be on a training mission when the Navy made the claim.

Similar orders were entered for some other military personnel, including a group of Navy SEALs who filed a separate case.

But the Supreme Court intervened in March, ruling that the Navy can consider a service member’s vaccination status when deciding on deployment.

The 6–3 ruling saw three Republican-appointed justices, including Justice Brett Kavanaugh, side with the military along with three Democrat-appointed justices.

While the lower court judge in one of the cases was “no doubt well-intentioned,” he “in effect inserted itself into the Navy’s chain of command, overriding military commanders’ professional military judgments,” Kavanaugh, a Trump appointee, said in a concurring opinion.

The ruling was on another case, but it prompted an appeals court to halt Merryday’s order, leading to the latest update from the commander’s lawyer.

The commander’s religious exemption application was denied, as was an appeal of the denial. The military was accused of violating federal law in denying the request. The military maintains that it adhered to the law.

Liberty Counsel, the firm representing the commander, also gave updates on others fighting the mandate, including allegations that the military notified a Marine Corps lieutenant that he was being separated from the force because his request for exemption was denied, and an appeal of the denial was rejected.

“These military members are suffering mental anguish and great harm for standing up for their sincerely held religious convictions,” Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the legal firm, said in a statement, adding that the mandate “is inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on America’s finest members of the military.”

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