Ten senators Wednesday introduced legislation to protect what they said were the free conscience rights of cadets at U.S. military academies who refuse vaccinations because of their beliefs. A companion measure is expected to be introduced in the House.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, announced the Defending Freedom of Conscience for Cadets and Midshipmen Act on the day three unvaccinated “firsties” at the U.S. Air Force Academy are scheduled to receive their diplomas but not their officer commissions.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is evaluating whether the three would be required to repay tuition costs if they remain unvaccinated and thus not commissioned. One senior who had refused the jab later relented to preserve his medical treatments as he battles cancer.
The Rubio-led bill would protect cadets and midshipmen at the Air Force Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy “from being punished for their choice to not receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” a statement said.
“It is outrageous to punish young men and women who want nothing more than to serve their nation,” Mr. Rubio said in a statement. “These are the types of ridiculous, unnecessarily punitive measures that discourage patriotic Americans from joining the military. The Academy should stop playing politics and focus on preparing cadets and midshipmen for their future service.”
Along with stating cadets and midshipmen can’t be denied graduation for refusing COVID-19 vaccines, the bill’s provisions also would prevent them from being dismissed from their service academy for such a refusal.
A group of remaining cadets at the Air Force Academy still face expulsion — and potential six-figure bills for their otherwise-free education — if they don’t receive the COVID-19 vaccine by Aug. 1. The proposed legislation would protect the students from being subject to such repayment claims.
The nine other GOP senators who are original co-sponsors of the bill are Roger Marshall of Kansas; Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho; Mike Braun of Indiana; Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; Kevin Cramer of North Dakota; Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi; Rick Scott of Florida, and Steve Daines of Montana.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Doug Lamborn, the Colorado Republican whose district includes the Air Force Academy’s campus, said they’ll introduce the bill in the House on Friday.
“The dedicated cadets and midshipmen at our military service academies deserve nothing short of our admiration and support for their decision to serve their country at a young age,” Mr. Lamborn said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that political leadership in the U.S. Department of Defense is seeking to penalize these brave Americans by preventing them from graduating or serving in the military.”
Supporters and opponents of the cadets reacted quickly to the bill’s announcement.
“The military’s COVID vaccine mandates are required due to leftist ideology, not science,” said attorney Mike Rose, who represents Air Force Academy cadet Jameson Barnard. “Punishing cadets for exercising their rights by not taking this vaccine is vindictive, disrespectful and unnecessary, and undermines respect for military leadership.”
Michael L. Weinstein, a lawyer who is the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said he opposes the Rubio-led measure.
“This legislation isn’t worth spit … It’s another attempt by fundamentalist Christian nationalist members of the Republican Party in Congress to throw red meat in an election year to their rapacious constituents who do not understand how the military works nor how our beautiful United States Constitution works,” he said in a statement to The Washington Times.
“A lawful order from the president and secretary of defense making it mandatory to get the FDA-approved Covid vaccines leaves no room for rational nor reasonable objections at all…”
Air Force Academy media relations chief Dean J. Miller said via email, “The Academy is unable to comment on pending legislation.” An Air Force spokesperson said the service also does not comment on measures pending in Congress.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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