Defense

Judge blocks Pentagon from taking ‘any adverse action’ against sailors who have refused vaccine

A judge on Monday blocked the Pentagon from taking “any adverse action” against Navy sailors who have refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 for religious reasons.

A group of 35 Navy Special Warfare service members — including SEALs, special warfare combatant craft crewmen, divers and an explosive ordnance disposal technician — filed a lawsuit challenging the Navy’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate on Nov. 9, contending that the Navy’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate breached their religious freedom.

Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas noted in his ruling that the Navy denied at least 29 of the 35 religious accommodation requests. He said of the religious accommodation process, “by all accounts, it is theater,” adding that the branch “merely rubber stamps each denial.”

“Our nation asks the men and women in our military to serve, suffer, and sacrifice. But we do not ask them to lay aside their citizenry and give up the very rights they have sworn to protect,” wrote O’Connor, who was appointed by George W. Bush. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution,” he added.

The lawsuit named President Biden, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and the Pentagon. 

The Pentagon told The Hill that it is studying the decision, referring questions to the Justice Department “as this matter involves litigation.” The Hill reached out to the Justice Department for comment.

The First Liberty Institute, a group that represents the Navy SEALs who filed the lawsuit, said it was “pleased” with the court’s decision, adding that it is “abhorrent” to have service members choose between their faith and serving their country.

“Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values,” Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in a statement. “Punishing SEALs for simply asking for a religious accommodation is purely vindictive and punitive. We’re pleased that the court has acted to protect our brave warriors before more damage is done to our national security.”

The Navy required all active-duty sailors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 28, or else face potential discharge. Last month, the branch announced that it had given commanders guidance to move forward with issuing administrative separations for service members who did not get vaccinated.

A group of 47 Republican lawmakers filed an amicus brief in Texas federal court last month supporting the lawsuit. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who signed on to the brief, reacted to the ruling on Twitter, writing “This is a major win!”

Updated at 4:33 p.m.

Tags Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Pentagon vaccine mandate Ted Cruz

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