A federal judge granted a Navy SEAL and a Marine Corps officer exemptions from the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate required for military personnel — at least for now.
The two members of the armed services, identified only as a Navy Command Surface Warfare officer and a USMC lieutenant colonel, were part of a lawsuit filed in October that claimed they and others were denied religious exemptions from the vaccine.
They argued that the military treated medical exemptions differently, approving hundreds of those requests and providing accommodations while denying religious objectors alternative safety options to the COVID-19 vaccine.
More than a dozen other military personnel were part of the original lawsuit but the exemptions granted in the judge’s order issued earlier this month applied to the Navy SEAL and the USMC lieutenant colonel.
Military officials had rejected their original requests for religious exemptions and ordered them to begin the vaccination process or face discipline by Feb. 3.
The Marine, a Black woman, had an abortion which she said she regrets and will not receive a vaccine that uses fetal cells in violation of her faith. Some of the COVID-19 vaccines were developed with cells isolated from fetal tissue, according to a public health announcement out of Los Angeles County.
A day before the shots were to be administered, Judge Steven D. Merryday, a Bush appointee, halted the requirement.
He scheduled a hearing for Thursday to weigh the issue, but suggested the law is on the side of the military members.
“The two service members are very likely to prevail on their claim that their respective branch of the military has wrongfully denied a religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccination,” he wrote in the Feb. 2 order. “The record creates a strong inference that the services are discriminatorily and systematically denying religious exemptions without a meaningful and fair hearing.
“One struggles to imagine a wholesome and lawful explanation for the results evidenced in this record. The military is well aware of the frailty of their arguments in defense of their practices,” the judge added.
Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel which is representing the service members, said the judge’s decision was a victory for religious freedom.
“It is shameful how the military is treating these honorable service members. The military under the Biden administration is denying every religious exemption request while granting medical exemptions. The abuse and pressure being placed upon these military members is unconscionable and must stop,” he said.
As of Feb. 4, filings show that only four religious exemptions were granted out of more than 24,000 requests, according to Liberty Counsel, but more than 4,000 medical exemptions were approved.
A spokesperson from the Justice Department declined to comment on the case.
The federal government has argued in its court filing that vaccine mandates for military members have been standard for generations and “are critical to reducing infectious disease morbidity and mortality in the armed forces where service members must routinely operate in close quarters.”
Robert Tuttle, a professor at The George Washington University, said it’s too difficult to predict how the appeals court would rule in this case if the judge continues to side with the service members against the military’s COVID-19 requirement.
“These cases — and there are cases all over the place — they are really hard to predict how they are going to go,” he told The Washington Times, adding eventually the Supreme Court may have to review the issue.
“This judge is the same judge who rejected CDC’s attempt to limit cruise ships at the height of the pandemic so he was reversed by the 11th Circuit on that. He has a track record of being skeptical of government regulation with respect to COVID,” Mr. Tuttle said.
• Alex Swoyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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