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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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The goal of the radical left is to create or use chaos as a tool to change the institutions and the larger culture.. Here the pandemic has been used to manipulate an election and get their radicals in power. Already Obama had worked hard at changing the military by installing radicals even before Trump was president. Now that Biden is president who is controlled by the radicals, he has used the pandemic to remove conservatives. As they remove conservatives they gain cultural dominance over the organization they are attempting to control. They also used the Jan. 6th event as an excuse to target conservatives as seen here:


Here is an article about how the government is using the January 6th event to go after conservatives in the military:


The left are using the chaos that has risen naturally or the chaos that they create to change our institutions. It is definitely targeted at conservatives and Christians and we should understand what is happening and oppose their agenda. If Christians think they can avoid the “horseshoe” extremes (play the middle ground) and not be impacted, they are sadly deluded!


Rarely? Sounds like never. Seems like the military needs to be clear - is there truly a religious exemption? If not, say so. Then let the courts decide what is right according to the constitution.

Tom HanrahanJHUH8683

I agree; the headline is simply not accurate. Zero out of thousands is not "rarely".


We also have to realize that a current or potential adversary would --if given the chance-- gladly infect each and every sailor, marine, airman and soldier with the most lethal diseases posssible. A sick troop is evacuated off the battlefield. His replacement may or may not be sent or may be delayed in arriving where and when most needed.


As a veteran with twenty plus years in the army, I always remind civilian folks of this simple fact: when a young man or young woman swears in, sits in the barber chair and puts on the uniform it truly is a long list of sacrifice and self-denial. As the saying goes, working for Uncle Sam in any capacity means it ain't Burger King: you CANNOT have it your way. And part of the swear-in oath implies as much. Hair cuts, off duty "off limits" locations in your base community, restrictions on vehicle bumper stickers along with so many other "sacrifices" the service member willingly makes. For my 4 year enlistment I never got to select who would next be my barracks roommate (which was one of the best things the army ever did for me as I look back).


I agree that if you sign up for the military they pretty much own you, but lets not encourage deleterious behavior by our military. How many recruits were given hep C by the military during the Vietnam war because of a bad inoculation program ? Seemed like a good idea at the time.


That Hep C inoculation policy needs more research.
It I hope goes without saying that the young folks we send off to serve in harm's way should never under any pretense be "guinea pigs" for any type of experimentation. And yet I now fear "failure to get the vaccine" will be used as a punitive counseling tool and thus impair or limit career progression


You raise a point Sawgunner. I’ll never forget when I was going in the Army and we had to get shots. There was a young kid about my age (18 at the time) who was freaking out. I tried to calm him down and get him to take the shots but to no avail. He screamed hysterically and wouldn’t get it so I imagine he was forced out of the military - assuming he wouldn’t get the shot. I had to move on in the line issuing gear so I never saw the kid again.

I do believe there is an agenda to get conservatives out of the military and since many objectors of the vaccination are conservatives (also Christians) they are holding this rigid stance not only in the military but in government where I work. It was in my best interests to get the shot so I didn’t raise any issues about it but many Christians in my organization refused to get the shot so they could well be fired if Biden’s mandate hadn’t been blocked. I haven’t talked to them recently so I am not sure what is going on but I think they loosened up on it.