Pentagon's 'Blanket Denial' of Religious Exemption Requests to Vaccine Prompts GOP Lawmakers to Demand Answers

Pentagon's 'Blanket Denial' of Religious Exemption Requests to Vaccine Prompts GOP Lawmakers to Demand Answers
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, on June 16, 2022. (Valeria Mongelli/AFP via Getty Images)
More than a dozen Republican lawmakers have called on Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to answer questions following the circulation earlier this month of a leaked memo by the Pentagon’s watchdog that found “potential noncompliance” with the law in the review and denial process of religious accommodation requests to the vaccine mandate.

The June 2 memo by Acting Inspector General (IG) Sean W. O’Donnell states that after reviewing dozens of denials of religious accommodation requests, the IG’s office “found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies.”

In a Sept. 19 letter to Austin, 15 lawmakers pointed to the extremely low approval rates of religious exemption requests to the Department of Defence’s (DoD) vaccine mandate.

According to the most recent publicly-available data, only 196 religious accommodation requests have been approved out of more than 26,000 requests across the armed services.

Lawmakers wrote that it was “especially concerning” that most of the approved religious accommodation requests were granted to service members slated for retirement, and that “all branches have approved non-religious vaccine exemption requests at a far higher rate than religious exemptions.”

“This suggests the DoD is applying different policies towards servicemembers’ applications based on their religious beliefs and expected employment status,” the letter stated.

Referring to the memo, the lawmakers wrote that the “blanket denial” of religious accommodation requests violates DoD Instruction 1300.17 (pdf), which requires each religious accommodation request to be reviewed individually.

“In summary, according to the DoD IG’s memo, the Department has engaged in unlawful religious discrimination,” the lawmakers wrote.

The findings of the IG memo did not astonish Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), who signed the letter.

“The fact that the Department of Defense didn’t seriously consider religious exemptions is no surprise,” Higgins told The Epoch Times.

“We expected that the Biden administration had passed down some guidance to force compliance with the vaccine mandate, and that was reflected by the almost universal rate of denial.”

Another signatory Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Co.) described the findings as “extremely concerning.”

“The fact that religious exemption cases were not reviewed individually and were only assessed for a maximum of 12 minutes on average is a clear violation of our service members’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) rights,” Lamborn told The Epoch Times in an email.

The Colorado congressman said that he will “continue to work tirelessly with my colleagues in Congress to ensure DoD upholds the First Amendment rights of our men and women in the military above an unlawful vaccine mandate.”

The Congress members, in the letter, requested various records to be provided no later than Sept. 30. These include a complete copy of the IG’s memo dated June 2, all records associated with Navy, Air Force, and Army religious accommodation requests for COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as any of the DoD internal policy directives associated with the review of religious accommodation requests for the vaccines.

“The COVID vaccine mandate has been detrimental to recruitment efforts and military readiness. It has also been proven completely unnecessary,” Higgins said. “All federal COVID mandates should be terminated, especially the absurd vaccine mandate on our Armed Forces,” he added.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Danny Erickson (a pseudonym), who initially published parts of the leaked memo on his website, said that the document proves the Pentagon’s leadership is aware of the issue.

“It can no longer be said that the [secretary of defense] didn’t know, [because] he’s been aware since at least June 2,” Erickson told The Epoch Times.

For Erickson, “the most concerning thing about the IG letter to … Austin, and the subsequent silence from the DOD in response to it going public, is the blatant disregard for law.”

“Congress has confronted [Austin], and now we’ll wait to see if he’ll respond or if he’ll ignore the letter as he’s done with so many others sent in the past from members of Congress,” he added.

Erikson emphasized that his views don’t reflect those of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army. The DoD did not respond to requests for comment.