Navy service members seeking religious exemptions to vax mandate handed favorable ruling

Jennie Taer, DCNF

A federal judge in Texas granted 35 Navy service members’ court motion challenging the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate with religious exemptions Monday.

Mike Berry, who is representing the Navy SEALs on behalf of First Liberty Institute, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that the ruling is a win for religious freedom.

“We are very grateful for this ruling in favor of our clients,” Berry said. “No longer can the Navy force service members to choose between their faith and serving their country.”

He added: “If religious freedom means anything, it must mean that those who are sworn to protect our freedoms should not be forced to lose those very same freedoms.”

In his decision to grant the preliminary injunction, Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas called the Navy’s 6-phase, 50-step religious accommodation process “theater.”

“The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory,” O’Connor stated. “It merely rubber stamps each denial.”

As of Dec. 29, the Navy hasn’t granted any religious exemptions for its servicemembers, and the judge said not a single vaccine religious exemption has been granted by the Navy in the last 7 years.

He said several plaintiffs were told that senior leadership had “no patience or tolerance” for religious accommodations “and wants them out of the SEAL community.”

“The Navy’s accommodation process confirms those fears,” O’Connor said. “The Navy uses a fifty-step process to adjudicate religious accommodation requests. Under the standard operating procedures for the process, the first fifteen steps require an administrator to update a prepared disapproval template with the requester’s name and rank. In essence, the Plaintiffs’ requests are denied the moment they begin.”

O’Connor also said the Navy’s policy that states servicemembers with religious exemption requests are considered “disqualified,” meaning “permanently nondeployable.”

The judge cited some of the plaintiff’s personal stories, including one plaintiff who said they were told by their superiors that if their religious exemptions were approved, they would still lose their SEAL tridents. Another “egregious” story came from another plaintiff, who was barred from traveling for treatment of his deployment-related traumatic brain injury.

The Navy mandated that servicemembers be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 28.

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