Air Force denies more than 2,100 COVID-19 vaccine religious exemption requests
The Air Force has denied 2,130 requests for religious accommodations to the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate and has not approved any, the service announced Tuesday.
Air Force and Space Force commands received more than 10,000 requests from airmen and guardians across the active duty, National Guard and Reserve hoping to avoid the coronavirus shot.
More than 8,630 individuals are still awaiting the Air Force’s decision on their requests, which are “individually reviewed by Religious Resolution Teams at the wing, garrison, major command and field command levels,” the service said in a statement announcing the data.
The teams, which are made up of chaplains, medical providers, judge advocates and other subject matter experts, “make recommendations on determining the least restrictive means possible to accommodate a sincerely held belief without putting mission accomplishment at risk.”
Thousands of religious accommodation requests to the vaccine have been denied across the military services since Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in late August said the shot would be mandatory for all military personnel.
The Navy on Wednesday said it has received 2,844 active-duty requests for religious accommodation for the vaccine mandate, none of which have been approved.
The Marine Corps and Army, meanwhile, have received some 3,100 and 1,700 requests, respectively, according to The Associated Press.
The denials have caused frustration among service members and have even sparked a lawsuit by a group of Navy SEALs and sailors who claim the Defense Department has too high of standards for granting such exemptions.
A group of 47 Republican lawmakers has backed that case, currently being heard in a Texas federal court.
Within the Air Force, those whose religious accommodation requests are denied have five days after the denial to start the vaccination process, file an appeal with the Air Force surgeon general, or request to separate or retire if they are able, according to a Dec. 7 memo from Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.
So far, no appeals to the surgeon general of the Air Force have been successful, with 135 denied and 152 still pending.
“Based on the number of disapproved accommodation requests at this point, Airmen and Guardians are encouraged to consider that operational requirements could result in requests for religious accommodations being denied,” the Air Force cautioned.
If their appeal is denied, the five-day clock to begin vaccination is reset.
Those who still refuse the vaccine “will be subject to initiation of administrative discharge proceedings,” the Air Force statement noted.
As of this week, more than 97 percent of all service members are at least partially vaccinated, according to the Pentagon.
That percentage is nearly on par with the Air Force, which says nearly 96 percent of its force is at least partially vaccinated.
Roughly 17,000 airmen and guardians, however, remain unvaccinated, and the service has discharged 27 such service members, none of whom sought a religious or medical exemption.