A federal judge in Texas has issued an injunction blocking the U.S. Navy from punishing several dozen Navy SEALs and other Special Warfare servicemembers for requesting religious exemptions from the Navy’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
The lawsuit stems from a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) order in August directing all DOD servicemembers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Over 99% of servicemembers have been vaccinated, but 35 Navy personnel applied for religious exemptions. Most of those were denied, others are still pending, and many have been threatened with sanctions for even requesting an exemption. No requests have been granted.
The Navy SEALs, represented by First Liberty Institute, filed a lawsuit in November claiming that the actions of the Navy violated their religious freedom rights under the First Amendment and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
United States District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth, Texas, ruled on January 3 that the SEALs were entitled to an injunction against the DOD preventing any further deprivation of their rights as the case proceeds.
Judge O’Connor was blunt in his assessment of the religious freedom issue.
“Our nation asks the men and women in our military to serve, suffer, and sacrifice,” O’Connor wrote. “But we do not ask them to lay aside their citizenry and give up the very rights they have sworn to protect. Every president since the signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has praised the men and women of the military for their bravery and service in protecting the freedoms this country guarantees.”
The Navy argued the judge should not be considering the SEALs’ case because the military had its own administrative system for evaluating requests for religious exemptions. The judge dismissed the Navy’s internal processes as “theater.”
“The Navy provides a religious accommodation process, but by all accounts, it is theater,” the judge’s ruling reads. “The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory. It merely rubber stamps each denial. The Navy servicemembers in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect.
“The COVID-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”
The judge also noted that the Navy’s bureaucracy in many cases punished the SEALs just for requesting a vaccine exemption.
“Plaintiffs are already suffering injury while waiting for the Navy to adjudicate their requests,” he wrote. “In some cases, Plaintiffs have suffered injury because they seek religious accommodation. Plaintiffs testify that they have been barred from official and unofficial travel, including for training and treatment for traumatic brain injuries; denied access to non-work activities, like family day; assigned unpleasant schedules and low-level work like cleaning; relieved of leadership duties and denied opportunities for advancement; kicked out of their platoons; and threatened with immediate separation.”
Mike Berry is the General Counsel for First Liberty Institute. In a press release, he praised the judge’s ruling.
“Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values,” Berry said. “Punishing SEALs for simply asking for a religious accommodation is purely vindictive and punitive. We’re pleased that the court has acted to protect our brave warriors before more damage is done to our national security.”
The injunction will last for the duration of the lawsuit. The government can appeal the injunction to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals if it chooses.
The case is U.S. Navy SEALs 1-26, v. Biden.
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