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Military rarely grants religious vaccine exemption requests

A federal judge says religious service members might have a case against the mandate

The Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon performs at halftime during an Atlanta Falcons game on Nov. 18. Associated Press/Photo by John Bazemore

Military rarely grants religious vaccine exemption requests

As of mid-November, U.S. service members had filed 16,643 requests for a religious exemption to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but their superiors had not granted any, according to a judge’s recent order. U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday ruled on Nov. 22 that the military must do a better job tracking troops’ religious objections to vaccination. He indicated the service members might have a religious freedom case against the military that could lead to him blocking the vaccine mandate.

A few weeks after the U.S. Department of Defense issued the mandate in August requiring vaccination against COVID-19 within the military’s ranks, several members filed a lawsuit in federal court in Florida. They argued each branch of the service “substantially pressures” soldiers to get the vaccine, and they called the military’s religious exemption process a “ruse.”

In his order last Monday, Merryday said the case merited further review under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The 1993 law requires the government to show a compelling interest before substantially burdening someone’s religious freedom and to use the least restrictive means possible when doing so.

“The plaintiffs’ contention is—based on current data—quite plausible that each branch’s procedure for requesting a religious exemption is a ruse that will result inevitably in the undifferentiated (and therefore unlawful under RFRA) denial of each service member’s request,” Merryday concluded.

Saying he needed more information before deciding whether to block the mandate, Merryday ordered the military branches to file, beginning on Jan. 7, regular reports about their handling of religious exemption requests, including the total number of requests, denials, and appeals. Drilling down further, he asked for reports on the number of disciplinary proceedings and actions taken after denial of an appeal. He invited either party to file a memorandum on or after Jan. 7 addressing whether he should block the mandate.

Two Marine Corps officers, both parties to the lawsuit, said they filed religious exemption requests only to have their superiors deny them on the basis that vaccination was necessary for military readiness. Because of their refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine, one lost a temporary overseas assignment and the other lost a permanent reassignment to a different duty station. Their appeals are pending.

Both are at risk of removal from the military. Marine Corps guidance issued in late October said that vaccine-refusing service members will be “processed for administrative separation”—that is, booted from the ranks.

“Their effort is to try and persuade or intimidate us into believing that our only options are comply or get out,” said one of the officers, noting that a threatened less-than-honorable discharge would result in reduced benefits. (WORLD agreed to grant the officers anonymity because of the potential ramifications to their military careers.)

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said last week that active-duty soldiers, reservists, and National Guardsmen who refuse the vaccine would be “flagged,” barring them from reenlistment, promotions, and potentially most schools, according to a report at Military.com. For officers, the consequences are more severe, including relief of duty—a consequence threatened for all vaccine refusers in the other branches.

The impact could be most severe in the Marine Corps, where 6 percent of the force (or 11,000 soldiers), the highest of any branch, remains unvaccinated, according to Military Times.

Roger Gannam, a Liberty Counsel attorney representing service members in the lawsuit, said that since the mandate was issued the Orlando-based religious liberty law firm has received calls from hundreds of soldiers who want a vaccine exemption. Gannam said the callers say, “I have made my request and don’t have an answer, but I have been told, ‘This is a bad idea, you’re going to ruin your career, and it’s not going to be granted so don’t even bother.’”

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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