Appeals court rejects Biden admin.'s attempt to unblock vaccine mandate enforcement on Navy SEALs

Members of SEAL Team 18 perform a demonstration at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Norfolk, Virginia, on June 20, 2014 for the Navy Employer Recognition Event.
Members of SEAL Team 18 perform a demonstration at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Norfolk, Virginia, on June 20, 2014 for the Navy Employer Recognition Event. | Public Domain

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has rejected a motion to lift a block on enforcing the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for 35 Navy personnel who oppose getting vaccinated against the coronavirus for religious reasons.

In a per curiam decision released Monday, the panel denied a motion from the Biden administration to lift a lower court injunction blocking the Department of Defense from enforcing the COVID-19 vaccine mandate on the 35 service members seeking religious exemptions. 

Under the policy, military service members were to have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine by Nov. 28. 

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The court concluded that the 35 plaintiffs, including 26 Navy SEALs, had a valid complaint under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that deserved to be seriously considered.

“Plaintiffs allege specific, and far from frivolous, violations of their free exercise rights under both the First Amendment and RFRA. Thus, the nature and strength of Plaintiffs’ claims weigh in favor of judicial resolution,” the decision reads.

“Plaintiffs also face irreparable harm if judicial review is denied. … By pitting their consciences against their livelihoods, the vaccine requirements would crush Plaintiffs’ free exercise of religion.”

The panel noted that Navy leadership “does not even dispute that its COVID-19 vaccination requirements substantially burden each Plaintiff’s free exercise of religion, but the nature of the injury bears emphasis.”

“Plaintiffs have thoughtfully articulated their sincere religious objections to taking the vaccine itself. Accepting the vaccine would directly burden their respective faiths by forcing them to inject an unremovable substance at odds with their most profound convictions,” continued the decision.

“Defendants have not demonstrated ‘paramount interests’ that justify vaccinating these 35 Plaintiffs against COVID-19 in violation of their religious beliefs.”

The First Liberty Institute, a legal group representing the Navy service members, released a statement Monday celebrating the panel decision.

“Our military should be welcoming service members, not forcing them out because of their religious beliefs,” said First Liberty Director of Military Affairs Mike Berry in a statement. 

“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. We’re grateful the Fifth Circuit denied the Navy’s motion.”

Last November, First Liberty Institute filed the lawsuit on behalf of the service members who opposed getting vaccinated against COVID-19 for religious reasons.

In January, Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court Northern District of Texas, a George W. Bush appointee, issued a preliminary injunction against the mandate.

“The Navy provides a religious accommodation process, but by all accounts, it is theater. The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory. It merely rubber stamps each denial,” wrote O’Connor earlier this year.

“The Navy servicemembers in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”

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