Members of the U.S. military go to work each day in order to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” They are willing to give their lives to defend our rights and freedoms – preeminent among them being the freedom of religion.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that Congress shall “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
But so far, during the COVID-19 pandemic, our servicemembers have seen their own rights – the rights they have sworn an oath to protect – trampled upon and disregarded.
This has been made particularly acute with regards to a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) order issued on August 24, 2021 mandating that all servicemembers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin wrote in the August memorandum. “Mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people.”
Intriguingly, the naval warship USS Milwaukee recently had to pause its deployment after 25% of its crew tested positive for COVID-19. The U.S. Navy has since acknowledged that the Milwaukee’s crew was “100% immunized.”
And the USS Halsey, a naval destroyer, recently had to delay its move from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to San Diego because one-third of the crew tested positive for COVID-19 – even though Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a spokesman for the 3rd Fleet, said nearly 100% of the crew was fully vaccinated.
Several thousand servicemembers have requested religious exemptions to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Their reasons vary from concerns about the use of aborted fetal cell lines in the available vaccines’ development, testing or production to private revelations from God not to receive the vaccine.
Indeed, CBS News reports that there have been 13,000 such requests across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
Until this week, the four branches of the military had granted zero requests for religious accommodation.
Now, the U.S. Marine Corps has become the first branch to finally grant a servicemember’s request, with the Corps granting two marines’ requests for religious exemptions.
The military has received criticism for slow walking the requests. And still, with two exemptions granted out of 13,000 requests, the military isn’t being overly generous.
Earlier this month, The Daily Citizen reported on 35 Navy SEALs who sued the Navy for violating their religious freedom rights under the First Amendment by punishing the SEALs for requesting religious exemptions from the vaccine mandates.
In ruling in favor of the SEALs, United States District Judge Reed O’Conner called the military’s accommodation process “theater.”
“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.”
It’s not like the military doesn’t know how to grant exemptions. In fact, the Marine Corps has granted 1,007 administrative or medical exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccines – but only two religious ones.
So far, the Marine Corps has kicked out 206 troops for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, while the Air Force has separated 27 airmen.
One wonders how many of those troops had submitted requests for religious exemptions that were ignored or denied.
Whether that number is one or 1,000, it’s clear that our servicemembers, who sacrifice so much for our nation, deserve much more respect than the “theater” the military has provided them thus far.
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