Federal Court Calls Air Force 'Abysmal' for Violating Religious Rights, Blocks Mandatory Vax Order for Now
A second federal court in two weeks has granted a preliminary injunction against the Department of Defense (DOD) on behalf of U.S. military service members seeking a religious exemption to the DOD's mandatory COVID-19 vaccine order.
A U.S. District Court in Georgia on Tuesday granted a preliminary injunction against the DOD and the Air Force on behalf of an officer who was denied a religious exemption. The order was handed down in the officer's lawsuit against the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Surgeon General of the Air Force.
On Jan. 6, attorneys with the nonprofit Thomas More Society filed the lawsuit, Air Force Officer v. Austin, on behalf of an Air Force officer who has served her country for over 25 years. She had objected to the COVID-19 shots because of the association with aborted fetal cells.
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The officer has been willing and able to work remotely, wear a mask, and test periodically. However, the Air Force issued a final denial last December to the officer's military request for a religious accommodation.
The lawsuit contends the military and civilian mandates violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the First Amendment of the Constitution, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
According to court documents, when the military denied her appeal, the Air Force gave her less than one week to make a choice from among three options: 1) Take the "vaccine"; 2) Submit a retirement request; 3) Refuse the shot in writing.
Then the Air Force further informed her that "any refusal to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, absent an approved exemption, may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice . . ." and that "continued refusal will result in involuntary reassignment to the Individual Ready Reserve without pay, benefits, or regular responsibilities."
Judge: 'Air Force's Abysmal Record Regarding Religious Accommodations Requests'
In his order, U.S. District Judge Tilman Self criticized the military by citing their rejection of the officer. "'Your religious beliefs are sincere, it's just not compatible with military service.' That's about as blunt as it gets," Judge Self pointed out. "This is how Plaintiff's chain of command paraphrased why he thought she was denied a religious exemption from a COVID-19 vaccine. True, he undoubtedly spoke for himself, but when considering the Air Force's abysmal record regarding religious accommodations requests, it turns out he was dead on target."
"Judges don't make good generals. But, by that same token, it's a two-way street: Generals don't make good judges—especially when it comes to nuanced constitutional issues," Judge Self noted. "It's that simple. Whether Defendants' COVID-19 vaccination requirement can withstand strict scrutiny doesn't require 'military expertise or discretion.'"
"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. 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," the court ruled.
"All Americans, especially the Court, want our country to maintain a military force that is powerful enough to thoroughly destroy any enemy who dares to challenge it. However, we also want a military force strong enough to respect and protect its service members' constitutional and statutory religious rights. This ruling ensures our armed services continue to accomplish both," Judge Self wrote.
"We are, of course, pleased with the ruling," said Thomas More Society Special Counsel Adam Hochschild. "We hope that this is beginning of the end of the Air Force's illegal enforcement of these mandates against service members."
Air Force Has So Far Approved Only 9 Religious Exemptions
As CBN News has reported, the Air Force earlier this month became the second U.S. military branch to finally approve a handful of religious exemptions to the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine order, granting requests from nine airmen to avoid the shots.
According to its weekly COVID-19 update, the Air Force said eight requests were approved, while one was granted after an appeal.
The approved airmen are just a tiny fraction of the more than 6,400 requested exemptions by Air Force personnel. Other service members are challenging the lack of religious exemptions in several court cases. The Marine Corps is the only other military service to grant any religious accommodations, allowing just three so far. The Army and Navy have not approved any.
Federal Judge in Tampa to Rule on Navy SEAL Case Friday
Last week, a federal judge in Tampa issued and later extended a temporary restraining order until Feb. 18 against the U.S. military, saying the DOD is unlawfully discriminating against service members by denying religious exemptions for COVID-19 shots.
The court order for two service members came after Liberty Counsel's request for an emergency injunction in Navy SEAL 1 v. Biden.
U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday gave a deadline of Wednesday for several military branches to provide the court with documentation regarding the denial of religious exemptions from the COVID shot mandate. Merryday is expected to issue his ruling on the case this Friday.
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