Court Battles

Supreme Court restores Pentagon’s authority over deployment of unvaccinated SEALs

The Supreme Court on Friday granted an emergency request from the Defense Department to restore its authority over the deployment of unvaccinated Navy SEALs and other special warfare service members amid a pending legal challenge to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The court’s move temporarily blocked a January ruling by a federal judge in Texas. That judge halted the department from considering vaccination status in deployment decisions affecting Navy special forces operators who have refused to comply with the military’s mandate on religious grounds.

Justice Clarence Thomas indicated that he would have denied the Pentagon’s request, and fellow conservatives Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch wrote in dissent.

“In this case, the District Court, while no doubt well-intentioned, in effect inserted itself into the Navy’s chain of command, overriding military commanders’ professional military judgments,” conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, concurring with the majority.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department said the agency will “rely on our prior filings in this matter for any comment.”

The Hill has reached out to the Pentagon for comment.

The ruling marks the latest twist as the Pentagon fights to be able to enforce its mandate against the plaintiffs in the case, who argued that the mandate violated their religious rights.

In early January, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor blocked the Navy from taking “any adverse action” against 35 special warfare sailors — including Navy SEALs, divers and special warfare combat crew. He argued that the religious accommodation process was “by all accounts, it is theater,” adding the branch “merely rubber stamps each denial.”

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals later turned down a request from the Pentagon to partially stay that ruling, saying the agency hadn’t proven “paramount interests” that justify vaccinating the plaintiffs.

Active-duty sailors had until Nov. 28 to be fully vaccinated, and reservists had until Dec. 28 to comply. As of March 23, the Navy has only granted nine accommodations for members in the Individual Ready Reserve, but those service members will have to be vaccinated before returning to active service. 

The high court was largely left to determine whether the district court’s ruling negatively impacted the military’s decision making.

Kavanaugh said he saw “no basis” for employing judicial power in a way that “military commanders believe would impair the military of the United States as it defends the American people.”

But Alito, writing for the dissent, criticized the Navy for not truly considering the service members’ requests. However, he indicated that he was “wary” of the district court’s “judicial interference with sensitive military decision making.” 

“I agree that the Navy has a compelling interest in preventing COVID–19 infection from impairing its ability to carry out its vital responsibilities, as well as a compelling interest in minimizing any serious health risk to Navy personnel,” Alito said. “But the Navy’s summary rejection of respondents’ requests for religious exemptions was by no means the least restrictive means of furthering those interests.”

Updated at 6:18 p.m.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Clarence Thomas Neil Gorsuch Samuel Alito

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