Our nation’s military is charged with defending the Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees to all American citizens. When one of those citizens is also an Air Force officer, those guarantees still apply.
So ruled Judge Tilman E. Self, III, a United States District judge in Georgia on February 15 while granting a preliminary injunction in favor of an unnamed female Air Force officer who objected, for religious reasons, to receiving the COVID-19 vaccinations required by the Department of Defense.
The officer, a 25-year veteran with an unblemished military record, was ordered – along with the rest of the nation’s armed forces – to get fully vaccinated by November 18, 2021, or request and receive an exemption from doing so. She officially requested an exemption on religious grounds due to the vaccines’ connection with the use of aborted fetal tissue cell lines used in their testing or production.
One additional fact in her favor: She already had COVID-19 in 2020, and two antibody tests since that time showed that she still has natural immunity to the disease.
However, her request was denied along with every other member of the Air Force who requested a religious exemption until just recently, when a few requests were granted. But not hers. She was given the option to either retire or be compelled to leave with her career in tatters. The financial loss alone would have amounted to over $1 million in lost pay and benefits.
However, more than three thousand Air Force servicemembers have received medical or administrative exemptions from the vaccination order, a fact which played heavily into Judge Self’s ruling that the mandate was not neutral toward religion.
“Plaintiff has clearly established the first necessary element to obtain a preliminary injunction because ‘any favorable treatment’ for service members exempted for any secular reason over those seeking exemption for religious reasons ‘defeats neutrality,’” the judge wrote.
The judge also didn’t buy the Air Force’s argument that the officer’s unvaccinated status would threaten military readiness.
“It seems illogical to think, let alone argue, that Plaintiff’s religious-based refusal to take a COVID-19 vaccine would ‘seriously impede’ military function when the Air Force has at least 3,300 other service members still on duty who are just as unvaccinated as her,” Judge Self stated.
Although the injunction is only a preliminary one while the litigation moves forward, the judge’s decision, along with another preliminary injunction recently granted in favor of a number of Navy SEALs and temporary restraining orders issued in a third case indicates growing legal momentum in favor of exemption requests.
Judge Self reminded the Air Force of the irony of the position it was taking with regard to religious freedom.
“Given ‘the Nation’s essential commitment to religious freedom[,]’ Plaintiff’s harm—a constitutional injury involving her right to freely exercise her religion—is not a mere trivial grievance. [citation omitted]. And, what real interest can our military leaders have in furthering a requirement that violates the very document they swore to support and defend? The Court is unquestionably confident that the Air Force will remain healthy enough to carry out its critical national defense mission even if Plaintiff remains unvaccinated and is not forced to retire.
“All Americans, especially the Court, want our country to maintain a military force that is powerful enough to thoroughly destroy any enemy who dares to challenge it. However, we also want a military force strong enough to respect and protect its service members’ constitutional and statutory religious rights. This ruling ensures our armed services continue to accomplish both.”
The Air Force officer in this case is represented by attorneys with Thomas More Society, which issued a press release announcing the judge’s ruling.
“This is a great victory for religious freedom,” stated Stephen Crampton, Senior Counsel with Thomas More Society. “The Air Force had granted over 1,500 medical exemptions by the time we filed this lawsuit, but not a single religious exemption – not one. After we filed, it suddenly decided to start granting or claiming to grant religious exemptions, albeit only a handful. It is disgraceful how the military in general has disrespected fundamental First Amendment rights. We are grateful that the court has restored the Free Exercise rights of this courageous officer and are hopeful that her victory will help to protect the rights of conscientious objectors everywhere.”
The case is Air Force Officer v. Austin.
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