Federal Judge Orders Protection for US Marines with Religious Objections to COVID Vaccine Mandate
TAMPA, FL - A federal judge in Florida ordered class action relief and granted a classwide preliminary injunction Thursday against the federal government's COVID shot mandate for all U.S. Marines whether they are active or in reserve service.
Liberty Counsel, a Christian religious rights law firm, sued Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and pursued this class action relief on behalf of all U.S. Marines who were denied religious accommodations from the COVID shots. Some religious objectors refuse the vaccines citing research and development that may have involved aborted fetal cells.
U.S. District Court of Florida Judge Steven Merryday issued the following injunction against the Department of Defense and the U.S. Marine Corps:
"The defendants are PRELIMINARILY ENJOINED (1) from enforcing against a member of the class any order, requirement, or rule to accept COVID-19 vaccination, (2) from separating or discharging from the Marine Corps a member of the class who declines COVID-19 vaccination, and (3) from retaliating against a member of the class for the member's asserting statutory rights under RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act)."
According to Liberty Counsel, the class includes:
"All persons on active duty or in the ready reserve (1) who serve under the command of the Marine Corps, (2) who were affirmed by a chaplain as harboring a sincere religious objection, (3) who timely submitted an initial request for a religious accommodation, (4) who were denied the initial request, (5) who timely appealed the denial of the initial request, and (6) who were denied or will be denied after appeal."
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, "Our courageous U.S. Marines finally have relief from these unlawful COVID shot mandates. The Biden administration and the Department of Defense are not above the law. These brave service members have been abused and mistreated because of their faith. They have faced discharge, court-martial, other life-altering disciplinary procedures, and termination for simply embracing their religious freedom to choose not to inject a substance into their bodies."
"The Department of Defense has relentlessly violated the law and ignored their religious freedom," Staver added. "Today, that lawlessness ends. Liberty Counsel has the great privilege to defend these service members who love God and their country."
U.S. Marine Corps Granted Only 11 Religious Accommodations Out of 3,733 Requests
In his 48-page order, Judge Merryday noted that 3,733 Marines have requested religious accommodations from receiving the COVID-19 shot ordered by the Secretary of Defense Austin in August 2021. Yet the Marine Corps has granted only 11 accommodations which included only those who are due for retirement and prompt separation.
Then the court posed the question: "Is it more likely than not — in nearly all 3,733 cases —that no reasonable accommodation was available?"
"Because the record reveals the substantial likelihood of a systemic failure by the Marine Corps to discharge the obligations established by RFRA, a class-wide preliminary injunction is warranted to preserve the status quo, to permit the full development of the record without prejudice to the plaintiffs, and to permit both a trial and a detailed, fact-based resolution of the controlling issues of fact and law," Merryday wrote.
"When Congress acts to preserve liberty, especially a liberty historically and constitutionally fundamental to the United States, the courts — the intended preserve of liberty — must not evade or equivocate, must not, so to speak, sacrifice the fundamental right of thousands of privates to Free Exercise in order to gratify the preference of a few generals," the court continued.
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In the court order, Judge Merryday then addressed the rights of these Marines under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), reminding Defense Department and other government officials that it is federal law.
"Obviously, RFRA includes everyone from the President to a park ranger, from the Chief Justice of the United States to a probation officer, from the Speaker of the House to a member's district office staffer, from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to a military recruiter — even if they don't like it and even if they don't agree with it. The Free Exercise Clause and RFRA are the law of the land," the court wrote.
'Retribution and Retaliation' Rather Than Good Faith Treatment of a Religious Objector
In his order, Merryday also noted Liberty Counsel's First Lieutenant plaintiff and others who were given only two days' notice for discharge from the Marine Corps and ordered to leave their homes.
"And the resort to two-day warnings of discharge (and, in the instance of First Lieutenant and undoubtedly others, suddenly charging daily rent of more than $100 to remain in military housing while packing one's family and searching for civilian housing) suggests retribution and retaliation, the existence of which detracts from the Marine Corps's claim elsewhere in this action to good faith treatment of a religious objector," the federal judge wrote.
'Neither the Military nor the Judiciary Can Judge the Validity of a Religious Objection'
Merryday also addressed the Marine Corps "systemic failure" of forcing a Marine to choose between betraying a sincerely held religious conviction or face a court martial and likely discharge that would also affect the service member's family.
"The Marine Corps's blanket rejection of RFRA's burden confuses the sincerity inquiry with the substantial burden inquiry, which further reveals the systemic failure under which the Marine Corps's resolution of religious accommodations labors. Of course, the injection into the body of a substance against which the recipient harbors a sincere religious objection is morally repugnant (to the class) and perforce burdens Free Exercise. And the burden is substantial not because the vaccine and the aborted tissue satisfy some arbitrary degree of connectedness but because the order to accept injection of the vaccine forces the religiously objecting Marine to choose between betraying a sincere religious conviction and suffering court martial or separation from the military and, likely, visiting adverse consequences on the Marine's family (such as the abrupt eviction from military housing and disenrollment from military schools)," Merryday continued.
"Although Marines of different faiths, different education, and different acumen might understand or explain this objection differently and with more or less clarity, many Marines, including Christians and Muslims, object that the COVID-19 vaccine was developed from cell lines derived from electively aborted fetuses and that introducing an mRNA-active substance into their body either desecrates their body, a temple of the Holy Spirit, or is haram, forbidden. In any case, neither the military nor the judiciary can judge the validity of a religious objection (unless the objection is irrational, delusional, or the like) — but can judge only the sincerity of the belief, which is demonstrated firmly in the administrative record by the chaplain's assessment of sincerity," the judge pointed out.
Declining COVID Shots Does Not Affect Marines' Ability to Serve
The court also said the Department of Defense has failed to uphold the religious freedom of Marines who chose to decline the COVID shots for religious reasons—a decision which does not affect their ability to serve in their military positions.
"The Marine Corps cannot evade RFRA by defining the conditions of service to exclude the possibility of an accommodation. This definitional sleight of hand evades the inquiry that RFRA demands: whether the Marine Corps's generalized interest in worldwide deployability is materially impaired by tolerating a few religious objectors and accommodating their continued service to the Marine Corps despite the generalized policy of worldwide deployability," Merryday wrote.
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