The Defense Department can’t punish Navy SEALs and others who have religious objections to receiving a mandated vaccine against COVID-19, a federal district court judge ruled Monday.
The ruling by Judge Reed O’Connor of the District Court for the Northern District of Texas, blocks the Navy from taking action against the SEALs and other special operations personnel.
Early Tuesday, a Defense Department spokesperson told The Washington Times via email the agency does not “comment on matters involving litigation” and referred a reporter to the Justice Department.
The Times has reached out to the Justice Department for comment.
The service members are among hundreds who have sought religious exemptions to the August 2021 Defense Department mandate requiring all active-duty personnel to receive vaccination against the novel coronavirus.
So far, no branch of the U.S. military has granted a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate, with a Navy policy specifically blunting any requests from special operations warfighters: Special Operations “personnel refusing to receive recommended vaccines … based solely on personal or religious beliefs are disqualified.”
In his ruling, Judge O’Connor said, “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.”
First Liberty, the Texas-based public interest law firm representing what it said were “dozens of U.S. Navy SEALs and other Naval Special Warfare personnel” opposed to the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate, said the move protects the personnel from punishment for seeking a religious exemption.
“The latest count is well over 1,000 medical and administrative exemptions granted, but not a single religious exemption,” Mike Berry, First Liberty’s general counsel, said in a telephone interview.
He called that figure “almost impossible” to believe.
“I literally have never heard of any such thing in my entire life or professional career. But I think it shows that this is really rooted in religious hostility, and in a political agenda,” he added.
Mr. Berry said that “religion and religious freedom enjoys the highest level of protection in our constitutional order,” and “the Department of Defense and the Biden Administration has been quite flamboyant about their unconstitutional actions when they have clearly treated religious accommodation requests far less favorably than they have treated medical and administrative exemption requests.”
In his opinion, Judge O’Connor, appointed in 2007 by President George W. Bush, said the plaintiffs satisfied the law’s requirements for a preliminary injunction — the case is likely to succeed on the merits, has demonstrated a substantial threat of irreparable harm, has shown the “balance of hardships” is in their favor, and an injunction “will not disserve the public interest.”
The judge also said the Navy’s willingness to grant exemptions to the vaccine for service members participating in clinical trials as well as those with medical issues and vaccine allergies while excluding religious objectors, means the policy is “underinclusive.”
Mr. Berry said “the ball is really in the Navy’s court” on whether the service will appeal the injunction or even ignore it.
“I hope that maybe this is a wake-up call to our national leaders and to the Pentagon, that religious freedom and our First Amendment rights as servicemembers can never take a back seat when it comes to other rights or other issues,” he added. “We have to be a nation that fulfills the full promise of the First Amendment; and people serving in the military — people who have sworn an oath to defend that very First Amendment — they should be treated no differently.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at email@example.com.
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