By CASEY HARPER
THE CENTER SQUARE SENIOR REPORTER
(The Center Square) — A group of Air Force service members have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense and the head of the Air Force to block them from discharging U.S. service members who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, the latest in a series of legal challenges to government vaccine mandates.
The members are seeking a “class wide temporary restraining order” to protect Air Force members who are seeking a religious exemption to the mandate. So far, hundreds of airmen have already received discharges for refusing the vaccine.
Because of provisions in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, those discharged cannot receive anything worse than a general discharge.
“At a time of instability and ever-increasing threats around the world, you’d think the Pentagon would want every service member at their post,” said Mike Berry, director of military affairs for First Liberty Institute, which is helping represent plaintiffs. “But instead, military leaders are forcing tens of thousands of our bravest out of the service because they’ve chosen to live according to their faith. Punishing these service members for seeking religious accommodation is illegal, vindictive and wrong. Religious liberty is essential to national security, and our service members deserve better.”
According to Air Force statistics, 97% of its service members are fully vaccinated, and the Air Force has granted only 68 religious exemptions, with 6,113 denied and more than 2,000 still pending, not counting many who are appealing their denial.
“Plaintiffs each have sincere religious beliefs that prohibit them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine,” the lawsuit said. “Each submitted an RAR, and each request has been denied. Even before the initial denials, though, Defendants began their discriminatory course of conduct against Plaintiffs and other requesters. Plaintiffs have lost promotions that had already been announced, received official discipline, been barred from training opportunities, and placed in a no-pay status, to name only a few kinds of the harm they have already endured.”
The Air Force said it would not comment on ongoing litigation.
A similar lawsuit from a group of Navy SEALs has grabbed national attention. Also represented by the First Liberty Institute, the SEALs say their requests for religious exemptions were unfairly denied.
The United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled in March to expand a preliminary injunction to stop the Department of Defense from taking action against any Navy personnel who were refusing the vaccine.
“Here, the potential class members have suffered the ‘same injury,’ arising from violations of their constitutional rights,” Judge Reed O’Connor said in his ruling. “Each has submitted a religious accommodation request, and each has had his request denied, delayed, or dismissed on appeal. Exactly zero requests have been granted. And while Defendants encourage this Court to disregard the data, it is hard to imagine a more consistent display of discrimination. As previously explained in this Court’s preliminary injunction order, Plaintiffs have suffered the serious injury of infringement of their religious liberty rights under RFRA and the First Amendment.”
Casey Harper works at The Center Square’s Washington, D.C., bureau.