By Zachary Stieber
A federal appeals court on Feb. 28 rejected an attempt by President Joe Biden’s administration to partially lift the block on the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for a group of Navy SEALs.
A federal judge in January blocked the mandate’s enforcement for 35 Navy members, many of them SEALs, ruling that the Navy provided a process for adjudicating religious exemption applications “but by all accounts, it is theater.”
At the time of the ruling, the Navy had granted zero religious exemptions. As of Feb. 23, it had still granted none.
Nonetheless, officials asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to allow the military to take into account the unvaccinated status of the 35 members when making “deployment, assignment and other operational decisions.” They argued that “forcing the Navy to deploy plaintiffs while they are unvaccinated threatens the success of critical missions and needlessly endangers the health and safety of other service members.”
A three-judge panel on the court rejected the request, noting the discrepancy between how the branch has handled medical and religious exemption requests.
“The Navy has granted hundreds of medical exemptions from vaccination requirements, allowing those service members to seek medical waivers and become deployable. But it has not accommodated any religious objection to any vaccine in seven years, preventing those seeking such accommodations from even being considered for medical waivers,” the panel said.
Judges said there is apparently no template for approving requests, but there is a disapproval template form. And during the process, Navy officials sent memorandums to Vice Admiral John Nowell asking that he disapprove the exemption requests, even those based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The Navy has “has effectively stacked the deck against even those exemptions supported by Plaintiffs’ immediate commanding officers and military chaplains,” emphasizing the futility of pursuing exemptions, the panel said. Further, letting 35 unvaccinated members deploy wouldn’t seriously impede military function because over 5,000 other members are still on duty despite being unvaccinated, they added.
“Defendants have not demonstrated ‘paramount interests’ that justify vaccinating these 35 Plaintiffs against COVID-19 in violation of their religious beliefs,” the ruling stated.
The panel consisted of Judges Edith Jones, a Reagan nominee; Stuart Duncan, a Trump nominee; and Kurt Engelhardt, a Trump nominee.
Mike Berry, director of military affairs for First Liberty Institute, which is representing the plaintiffs, said the group was grateful for the ruling.
“The purge of religious servicemembers is not just devastating to morale, but it harms America’s national security. It’s time for our military to honor its constitutional obligations and grant religious accommodations for service members with sincere religious objections to the vaccine,” Berry said in a statement.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, the George W. Bush nominee who entered the injunction, has yet to rule on a motion to widen the preliminary injunction to all Navy members seeking a religious exemption. He received arguments from both parties in February.