Federal judge blocks Air Force from booting service member over vaccine refusal
A Georgia federal judge blocked the Air Force from booting a service member who objected to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine for religious reasons.
In a preliminary injunction issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Tilman Self III ordered the Air Force to refrain from taking “any adverse action” against the unnamed Air Force officer on the basis of “this lawsuit or her request for religious accommodation, specifically including forcing her to retire.”
“Given ‘the Nation’s essential commitment to religious freedom[,]’ Plaintiff’s harm—a constitutional injury involving her right to freely exercise her religion—is not a mere trivial grievance,” Self wrote in a blistering rebuke of the mandate.
“And, what real interest can our military leaders have in furthering a requirement that violates the very document they swore to support and defend?” the judge continued. “The Court is unquestionably confident that the Air Force will remain healthy enough to carry out its critical national defense mission even if Plaintiff remains unvaccinated and is not forced to retire.”
Ann Stefanek, a spokesperson for the Air Force, told The Hill that the service is “aware of the preliminary injunction and will abide by the Court’s Order until the matter is legally resolved. The Air Force has no other comments about this ongoing litigation.”
The case was filed in January by the Thomas Moore Society on behalf of the service member, who says they served for over 25 years.
According to the organization, the service member says they object to the COVID-19 vaccine for religious reasons, and because they have natural immunity to COVID-19 from prior infection. She was denied a request for religious accommodation in December and filed suit a month later.
The Air Force gave its active-duty service members until Nov. 2 to be vaccinated, while Air National Guard and Reservists had until Dec. 31 to be inoculated.
It wasn’t until last Tuesday that the service said it had granted religious exemptions to the mandate — approving nine out of thousands that it has received.
Similar rulings have been handed down by other federal courts over the past couple of months.
In early January, federal Judge Reed O’Connor in the Northern District of Texas blocked the Navy from taking adverse actions against a group of 35 Navy sailors who had religious objections to the mandate.
On Feb. 2, in a case brought by Liberty Counsel, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday of the Middle District of Florida temporarily barred the Navy and Marines from “diminishing or altering in any manner and for any reason the current status” of a Navy commander and Marine Corps lieutenant colonel for not getting vaccinated through a hearing that was scheduled for Feb. 11.
Merryday extended his order that day following the hearing, Liberty Counsel said at the time.
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