Vaccine mandate on hold for religious airmen
Court broadens bar on shot requirement for service members claiming religious exemption
A federal court in Ohio on Thursday put an Air Force–wide hold on a vaccine mandate for airmen claiming religious exemptions to the COVID-19 shot mandate that has been in effect since Sept. 1, 2021.
In a 22-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Matthew McFarland agreed with attorneys for the three airmen who originally sued that relief should extend to all of the service members whose requests for religious exemptions the Air Force denied or delayed. “The facts show defendants have engaged in a pattern of denying religious accommodation requests,” wrote McFarland. “Indeed, of the over 9,000 religious exemption requests, only 109 have been granted by either initial determination or appeal.”
In March, McFarland blocked the vaccine mandate for the three airmen in the suit, barring the military from taking any disciplinary or separation measures against them for refusing the vaccine. That ruling is on appeal to a federal appeals court in Cincinnati.
“The threat of such severe repercussions can only be seen as requiring plaintiffs to choose between their religious beliefs and their livelihoods, which is a classic case of ‘substantial pressure,’” said McFarland in his March 31 order. He rejected the military’s claim that service members could travel internationally to obtain a non-approved vaccine not developed using fetal cell lines from aborted fetuses as “patently absurd.”
He harshly criticized the virtual wholesale rejection by military authorities of the religious exemptions. “In this Court’s opinion, assuming the Constitution has taken a holiday, the holiday is long over, and it needs to get back to work, NOW,” McFarland wrote in an opinion that rang with calls to protect religious liberty.
In a similar case pending before a federal court in Georgia, Thomas More Society attorneys representing a single Air Force officer secured an order blocking the mandate. The religious liberty law firm is now representing three additional Air Force members and is also seeking class action certification for a nationwide hold on the vaccine mandate.
It is unclear how the Ohio judge’s ruling will affect a May ruling by a Nebraska judge who sided with the Air Force over its refusal to exempt 36 members of the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard with religious objections to the vaccine. On its face, the Ohio judge’s ruling appears to override Nebraska’s. In contrast to McFarland’s decision, U.S. District Judge Brian Buescher found the airmen were unlikely to succeed on their claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or First Amendment. Those service members have filed an appeal.
One Air Force Academy cadet whose graduation was held up by his religious objection to the shot rejoiced Thursday. Nathan Suess said he was concerned by the temporary nature of the order, yet cautiously optimistic that the judge would permanently block the vaccine requirement. “The silver lining in all this is that it strengthens my trust in the Lord,” said Suess. “After all, it’s that relationship that most matters.”
The order blocking the mandate expires on July 28, unless extended by the Ohio judge. He has ordered additional briefing by the parties as he considers whether to make the ruling permanent.
“No service member should be required to choose between service to the country and service to God,” said Mat Staver, who represented the airmen. “Liberty Counsel will be pursuing class-wide protection for the remaining branches of the military.”
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