US Army Has Approved Only 20 Permanent Religious COVID-19 Vaccine Exemptions

US Army Has Approved Only 20 Permanent Religious COVID-19 Vaccine Exemptions
A soldier watches another soldier receive his COVID-19 vaccination from Army Preventive Medical Services in Fort Knox, Ky., on Sept. 9, 2021. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
Mimi Nguyen Ly

The U.S. Army announced on July 21 that it has approved just 20 permanent religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, after receiving thousands of requests.

Out of the 8,000 applications for a permanent religious exemption, a total of 1,465 have been reviewed by the Army. Just 20 have been approved—an approval rate of about 1.37 percent.

All those who had their applications approved were in the active Army. None from the Army National Guard or Army Reserve have received an exemption.

That leaves 6,535 applications for a permanent religious exemption yet to be reviewed by the service.

Meanwhile, the Army has reviewed 1,045 permanent medical exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine, out of 1,100 requests. It has approved just 34 of the requests, which is an approval rate of about 3.25 percent.

“Army officials review each request on an individual basis to determine whether an exemption is appropriate,” the Army stated. “Medical requests are reviewed primarily by healthcare providers, while religious accommodation requests include interviews with the Soldier’s chaplain, recommendations from the chain of command, as well as a public health and a legal review.

“All Soldiers who refuse the order to be vaccinated without an approved or pending exemption request are subject to certain adverse administrative actions, including flags, bars to continued service, and official reprimands.

“Soldiers who continue to refuse the vaccination order without an approved or pending exemption may also be subject to additional adverse administrative action, including separation.”

Ninety-six percent of the active Army, 88 percent of the Army National Guard, and 90 percent of the Army Reserve are fully vaccinated, according to the military branch’s statistics.

Over 17,000 COVID-19 Vaccine Refusals

More than 17,000 Army troops have refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine, data indicated. Most of the refusals come from the Army National Guard, where more than 10,700 soldiers have refused to be vaccinated.

Out of 1,425 active Army members who refused the COVID-19 vaccine, 1,379 have been separated; no troops in the Army National Guard or Army Reserve have been separated.

Since July 1, under orders of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, members of the Army National Guard or Army Reserve who have refused the vaccine and don’t have a valid exemption “may not participate in federally funded drills, training, and other duty nor receive payment or retirement credit,” the Army said.

While the Army’s vaccine mandate continues to be in force, the U.S. Air Force has been temporarily blocked from enforcing its vaccine mandate after a federal district court in Ohio issued a temporary restraining order in mid-July. The order prevents Air Force authorities from disciplining any service members who are unvaccinated after having their religious exemption applications denied.

Plaintiffs in the case had contended that the class action suit would include more than 12,000 airmen.

According to data from the Air Force, as of July 11, more than 6,800 service members have been denied religious accommodation requests, while only 104 have been approved. Meanwhile, 834 members have been “administratively separated” by the branch.

Army Facing Personnel Shortfalls

The figures point to a low rate of permanent COVID-19 vaccine exemption approvals from the Army at a time when the service branch forecasts it will have significantly fewer troops than originally planned by the end of fiscal 2023.
Members of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment deploy to Germany in Savannah, Ga., on March 2, 2022. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)
Members of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment deploy to Germany in Savannah, Ga., on March 2, 2022. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

Army Gen. Joseph Martin, vice chief of staff for the Army, told a House military personnel panel on July 19 that the projection for the estimated total number of troops in the force by the end of the 2022 fiscal year, on Sept. 30, is 466,400—a drop of 6,600 from the original target of 473,000.

He also said that the estimated number of troops for the end of 2023 fiscal year is 445,000 to 452,000, which is 24,000 to 31,000 troops less than the original target of 476,000.

“Right now, what we’re experiencing—the ‘why’ of what we think is going on right now—is we’ve got unprecedented challenges with both a post-COVID-19 environment and labor market, but also private competition with private companies that have changed their incentives over time,” Martin said.

He said the Army can manage to handle personnel shortfalls in the short term, but it could have an impact on readiness if it persists.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), a member of the House Judiciary and Armed Services committees, took to Twitter on July 19 to advocate for the end of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the military, noting the drastic projected reductions in strength for the Army.

“Army Reserve and Army National Guard reductions will be even worse. We must depoliticize the military and end the vaccine mandate,” he said on Twitter.
Johnson in late June accused the Biden administration of having destroyed the Army’s readiness “by creating an unnecessary recruiting and retention shortfall, and trying to make up the difference by lowering other crucial education and fitness standards.”