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Judge sides with Navy SEALs seeking religious exemption to Biden admin. COVID-19 vaccine mandate

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. |

A federal judge has ruled in favor of Navy personnel suing the Biden administration over the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, concluding that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed in their claim that the requirement violates their religious freedom.

Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court Northern District of Texas issued a preliminary injunction Monday, arguing that the Navy has failed to respect the religious objections of service members. 

“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, a George W. Bush appointee.

“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.”

The lawsuit was filed in November on behalf of 35 U.S. Navy personnel, including 26 Navy SEALs. They are represented by the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based conservative legal nonprofit that specializes in religious liberty cases.

First Liberty General Counsel Mike Berry, who served for seven years as an attorney in the Marine Corps, said he was “pleased” with the injunction. He contends that the mandate forces military personnel “to choose between their faith and serving their country.”

“[It’s] abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values,” he said in a statement

“Punishing SEALs for simply asking for a religious accommodation is purely vindictive and punitive. We’re pleased that the court has acted to protect our brave warriors before more damage is done to our national security.”

The lawsuit stated that multiple plaintiffs “hold the sincere religious belief that all life is sacred, from conception to natural death, and that abortion is the impermissible taking of an innocent life in the womb.”

“As a result of their sincerely held religious beliefs regarding life and abortion, multiple Plaintiffs are unable to receive any of the COVID-19 vaccines due to what they believe and understand is a connection between these vaccines and their testing, development, or production using aborted fetal cell lines," the complaint states. 

The Pentagon announced in August that it would require U.S. military personnel to receive a COVID-19 vaccine by mid-September, citing combat readiness as a justification.

“Now that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved, the department is prepared to issue updated guidance, requiring all service members to be vaccinated,” stated Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby at the time.

“These efforts ensure the safety of our service members and promote the readiness of our force, not to mention the health and safety of the communities around the country in which we live.”

According to a report by the U.S. Naval Institute published last week, approximately 8,000 active duty and reserve Navy personnel are unvaccinated, with around 3,000 requests for religious exemptions being sent to the Navy.  

Multiple plaintiffs received a formal “COVID-19 Vaccination Administrative Counseling/Warning,” stating that those who refuse to get vaccinated based on personal or religious beliefs will be disqualified from special operations duty unless their disqualification is waived, the court filing shows The provision doesn’t “pertain to medical contraindications or allergies to vaccine administration.”  

“Plaintiffs also have been informed that any religious accommodation that will be
offered will preclude them from deploying,” the lawsuit reads. 

There has been debate in some religious circles about the ethics of taking a vaccine that has utilized aborted fetal cell lines in their testing or development.

Dallas megachurch Pastor Robert Jeffress argued in September that there is no “credible” religious argument against COVID-19 vaccines. He suggested that those troubled by the use of a fetal cell line for testing of the vaccines “would also have to abstain from the use of Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Ibuprofen, and other products that used the same cell line if they are sincere in their objection.”

Roman Catholic Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy P. Broglio released a statement in October stressing that “no one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience.”

“The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were tested using an abortion-derived cell line. That type of a link has been for centuries considered remote material cooperation with evil and is never sinful,” Broglio wrote.

A poll released last month from the Washington, D.C.-based Public Religion Research Institute found that most Americans support some level of religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccines, though their views on when religious exemptions should be granted differ. 

Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they either completely or mostly agree that “anyone who simply says that receiving a COVID-19 vaccination goes against their religious beliefs” should be granted a religious exemption.

Fifty-five percent said anyone who “has a record of refusing to receive other vaccinations” due to their religious beliefs should be able to claim a religious exemption. Additionally, 57% agreed that anyone who “belongs to a religious group that has a record of refusing to receive other vaccinations” should be able to claim a religious exemption.

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