Federal judge rejects Oklahoma’s bid to block National Guard vaccine mandate

An Oklahoma federal judge on Tuesday denied an attempt from the state to block the Department of Defense’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for National Guard members.

In a 29-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot denied a motion from Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) and Attorney General John O’Connor to preliminarily enjoin the mandate, saying the plaintiffs’ claims were without merit. 

“The court is required to decide this case on the basis of federal law, not common sense. But, either way, the result would be the same,” Friot wrote. “The claims asserted by the Governor and his co-plaintiffs are without merit.”

Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a Department of Defense spokesperson, told The Hill that the Department “doesn’t have a comment on the ruling beyond saying that [Secretary Lloyd Austin] has been clear and consistent on how important it is that we promote the health, safety, and readiness of our military personnel, regardless of duty status.”

The ruling is major development in the battle between Stitt and the Pentagon which began in November after the governor asked Austin to exempt his state’s National Guard from the mandate. 

The governor later appointed a new head of the Oklahoma National Guard, Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, who wrote a memo stipulating that no member of the state’s guard was required to get vaccinated.

Stitt and O’Connor sued the Pentagon earlier this month after Austin turned down the governor’s request to exempt the Oklahoma National Guard from the vaccine mandate, and threatened to withhold pay of Guardsmen who do not comply.

The back-and-forth is centered around two federal statutes that the National Guard operates under. Title 32 of the U.S. code puts the guard under control of the governor, but Title 10 places it under federal control. 

Amid the dispute, Mancino seemed to acknowledge earlier this month that Stitt couldn’t ward off the mandate when they are under Title 10 control.  

In an emailed statement, O’Connor’s office said “we are disappointed” with Friot’s decision.

“We expect the Biden administration to review in good faith all exemptions and religious accommodations requested by our fellow Oklahomans. We will not be surprised if the President’s vaccine mandate actually reduces the nation’s military readiness instead of promoting it. We are analyzing the State’s response to this decision,” the statement continued.

In a separate statement, Stitt said, “I have done everything in my power under the law to protect the freedoms of Oklahoma Guardsmen.” 

“President Biden’s decision to mandate COVID vaccines will weaken our operational readiness by driving good men and women out of the Guard by violating their personal and religious freedoms,” he said. 

The deadline for Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve personnel to get vaccinated was Dec. 2, and Army National Guard members still have until June 30 to comply.

While Friot rejected the state’s motion for a preliminary injunction, he still asked the defendants to provide a period for compliance with the mandate given the consequences of not complying.

“What the court cannot ignore is the potentially devastating effect of involuntary separation … especially where, as appears to be the case here, the individual non-compliant Guard members did not have the benefit of well-informed leadership at the highest level of the Oklahoma Guard,” the judge wrote.

“The court strongly urges the defendants to give every consideration to providing a brief grace period–to facilitate prompt compliance with the vaccination mandate–before directly or indirectly taking action which would end the military careers of any Oklahoma Guard members,” he continued. 

This story was updated Dec. 30 at 12:46 p.m.

Tags Biden Vaccine mandate Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic coronavirus vaccine mandate Joe Biden Kevin Stitt Lloyd Austin Oklahoma Stephen Friot

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