More than a dozen cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, face expulsion — and potential six-figure bills for their otherwise-free education — after refusing vaccination against COVID-19 on religious grounds.
Four of the affected cadets are due to graduate and receive their commissions on May 25, but were officially reprimanded by Brig. Gen. Paul D. Moga, the school’s commandant.
“If you are a first-degree [senior] cadet, you will not be permitted to graduate or commission unless you have begun a COVID-19 vaccine regimen,” Gen. Moga wrote in a May 9 letter provided to The Washington Times.
One graduating cadet, said to be a cancer survivor and whose name was not disclosed, began taking the vaccine.
Attorney Mike Rose, who represents one of the reprimanded cadets, said in a telephone interview that the cancer-survivor student felt compelled to submit from fear of losing medical coverage, but now is “in anguish” over accepting the jab.
A letter of reprimand spelled out the potential consequences to cadets who refused the vaccine and were not granted an exemption.
They face an Aug. 1 deadline for being vaccinated, or they will be “disenrolled” from the school with potential recommendations for “recovery” of Air Force Academy tuition, which Mr. Rose said could reach $200,000.
Lt. Col. Brian L. Maguire, public affairs director at the Academy, did not directly confirm or deny the graduation-denial reports, but said school officials must take into account issues of military readiness.
“Even if an individual holds a sincerely held religious belief, the decision authority, in this instance the Superintendent, must weigh that belief against the compelling government interest of ensuring a safe and ready force – crucial to meet global deployment responsibilities,” he said.
Lt. Col. Maguire said the school does “want to see these cadets graduate and commission, but they must meet the military requirements necessary for a ready force.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Rose, who represents cadet Jameson Barnard, said his client had received a text message stating the unvaccinated student would be allowed to graduate next week, but would not receive a commission.
Lt. Col. Maguire said via email that this cadet “was informed that he could graduate next week, pending the approval of the U.S. Air Force Academy Board. The Academy Board reviews every cadet to confirm if they’ve met all the requirements for graduation, and then provides their consent to the Superintendent.”
Those supporting the unvaccinated students say the service is disregarding legally required protections for the free exercise of religion.
“I was extremely disappointed to hear that the United States Air Force Academy is planning to deny these four cadets the opportunity to graduate and serve our nation because of their request to uphold their tightly held religious beliefs,” Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican whose district includes the Academy, said in a statement.
“America was founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which encompasses protecting the religious rights of the individual. That includes those who put on the uniform and volunteer to serve our nation. It is imperative that our military leaders uphold the constitutional rights of these cadets,” he added.
Mr. Lamborn has authored an amendment to the Defense Department’s fiscal 2022 authorization requiring “the Secretary of Defense to establish uniform standards under which servicemembers may be exempted from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine for administrative, medical, or religious reasons.”
That provision took effect last December when President Biden signed the authorization bill.
According to Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a former Colorado state representative, the reprimands signal something greater than a medical issue.
“This is a punishment for their religion,” Mr. Klingenschmitt, also a former Navy chaplain, said in a telephone interview. “It’s not about the vaccine. It’s about their religious conscience and their politically incorrect Christian beliefs. It’s a religious purge by the Biden administration.”
He said Gen. Clark violated a public pledge made last year to “protect religious freedom” for cadets at the school, a pledge Mr. Klingenschmitt said was made “twice onstage on video in September.”
“Then he did the opposite in December. He signed the denial of all the religious waivers himself, after publicly promising that he would defend religious freedom. So here’s a man who is double-speaking: he says one thing and does the opposite,” Mr. Klingenschmitt said.
Not everyone engaged in religious freedom issues for the armed forces supports the cadets, however.
According to a statement from retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Marty France, an advisory board member of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, criticized the cadets for disobedience and said they should be punished.
“These four USAFA cadets (and other underclass cadets who have also refused to be vaccinated) are visibly, vocally, and illegally defying a lawful order put in place by legitimate military authority. They should be prosecuted for this offense under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” Gen. France said.
The issue of COVID-19 vaccine mandate exemptions for members of the armed forces remains a contentious one.
Few active-duty military personnel have received such exemptions, although 14 Republicans in the Senate last week introduced a measure to blunt what Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, called an “unnecessary mandate.”
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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