Air Force members seeking religious exemptions from the U.S. military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate have provided "significant proof" that the service branch has discriminated against them, a federal appeals court ruled on Sept. 12.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said in its decision that plaintiffs had to provide significant proof that the Air Force had a policy to deny all requests for religious exemptions, and all indications are that they have.
"That the Department has granted only a comparative handful of religious exemptions, while granting thousands of medical and administrative ones, is itself at this stage of the case significant proof of discrimination."
Kethledge was joined by Circuit Judges Eric Murphy and John K. Bush, both Trump appointees.
PlaintiffsThe plaintiffs are all members who sought religious exemptions and were deemed by chaplains to hold sincere religious beliefs, although the military still rejected many of their requests. The others haven't received final decisions but expect to be rejected, based on the treatment of like-minded airmen.
The group has said that evidence shows the military systemically denied requests for religious exemptions, denying federal law and the U.S. Constitution.
“This order by the Court of Appeals affirms that the Department of Defense and the Air Force violated religious free exercise rights of service members which is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment," Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which is representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
"This is a great victory for religious freedom, especially for these Air Force service members who love God and love America. These mandates will continue to crumble one by one in the courts."
The court did expedite the Air Force's appeal of the class-wide preliminary injunction, directing the department to file its first brief within two weeks, plaintiffs to file within two weeks after that, and the Air Force to reply to that response within seven days. Oral arguments are scheduled for Oct. 19; a decision is expected in November.