In what is being hailed as a victory for religious freedom, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has denied a request from the U.S. government to overturn a lower court order protecting religious servicemembers who refused to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
The effect of the court’s order is to preserve the careers of approximately 10,000 Air Force servicemembers and cadets who applied for, but were denied, religious exemptions to the vaccination requirement while the litigation over their religious freedom rights proceeds in the federal courts.
The COVID-19 pandemic might be receding in importance for the average American as daily cases and deaths continue to decline, but for certain members of the nation’s military who face disciplinary action, including separation from the military, for refusing, on religious grounds, to receive a vaccination, the effects of the pandemic are very much ongoing.
In response to an August 2021 directive from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the Air Force (and the other armed services) ordered servicemembers to undergo vaccinations against COVID-19. The Air Force allowed exemptions for medical, administrative, and religious reasons.
But for some reason, though it granted thousands of medical and administrative requests for exemption, the Air Force has granted almost no religious exemptions, and the ones that were granted were also granted for administrative reasons such as for servicemembers nearing their service termination date.
“Thus,” wrote Judge Raymond Kethledge for the 3-judge 6th Circuit panel, “the record suggests that, at present, the number of exemptions that the Department [of the Air Force] has granted on religious grounds stands at zero” (emphasis added).
And that’s the reason why the 6th Circuit upheld the preliminary injunction awarded by U.S. District Court Judge Matthew McFarland on August 19 protecting the Air Force servicemembers who brought the lawsuit, as well as allowing the case to become a class action on behalf of the approximately 10,000 applicants for a religious exemption whose requests have been denied or are still pending.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are represented by attorneys with Liberty Counsel, who hailed the 6th Circuit decision in a press release.
“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,” said Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver.
“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 Air Force is not the only military branch in retreat for violating the religious freedom of its men and women in uniform. The U.S. Marines and the U.S. Navy have all been issued preliminary injunctions preventing them from punishing servicemembers who requested a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate.
Even the Department of Defense’s own Inspector General, Sean W. O’Donnell, raised warnings of religious freedom violations with regard to religious exemption requests in a June 2 memo to Defense Secretary Austin.
“The Department of Defense (DoD) Hotline received dozens of complaints regarding denied religious accommodation requests from Service members,” O’Donnell wrote. “We found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies.”
“Generalized assessments” is a polite term for the systematic, blanket denials of religious exemption requests across the military. In other words, the military brass is treating the religious freedom rights of its servicemembers as a joke that can be brushed aside with the stroke of a pen.
The United States – including its civilian leaders and military officers – owe a debt of gratitude for the sacrifices of the men and women who join the military to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and who “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
Punishing the country’s religious servicemembers and drumming them out of the military for voicing a religious objection to the vaccination mandate, however, is the opposite of gratitude. It’s shameful, and must end now.
Photo from Shutterstock.