By CASEY HARPER
THE CENTER SQUARE SENIOR REPORTER
(The Center Square) — Lawmakers are down to the wire on the National Defense Authorization Act, the massive annual funding bill for the military that needs to pass this month. Now, though, Republicans are pushing hard to include a provision ending the vaccine mandate for U.S. service members.
Senate Republicans have threatened to block the NDAA, demanding an immediate end to the mandate, which has led to thousands of discharged service members.
“The United States simply cannot afford to discharge our brave men and women in uniform and lose the investments we have made into each and every one of them due to an inept bureaucratic policy,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., adding that 3,400 service members have been discharged because of the mandate.
The White House has stood by the mandate. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, brought up repealing the mandate in a meeting with President Joe Biden on the NDAA. She said Mr. Biden is considering it.
The U.S. Navy alone has reportedly discharged nearly 2,000 service members, including Navy SEALs. Several Navy SEALS filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense, saying their religious exemption requests to the vaccine were not given proper consideration.
That case, Navy SEALs v. Biden, has oral arguments scheduled at the Fifth Circuit in February. Danielle Runyan, senior counsel of First Liberty Institute, pointed to a Navy SEAL commander recently referenced in court filings who said the mandate was hurting the SEALs.
“According to the Commander, enforcing the mandate will result in the loss of personnel necessary for accomplishing the Commander’s mission,” Ms. Runyan said. “This endorsement further illustrates that the Navy has failed to satisfy (Religious Freedom Restoration Act)’s rigorous standard.”
But the Navy is not alone, with discharges occurring in other branches as well as complaints over exemption denials. Members of other branches of the military also have sued over the mandate.
Reports like those led Republican Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana, Mike Lee of Utah, as well as Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, to introduce legislation Monday that would compel an audit of the DOD and how it has handled those exemption requests.
“Our brave men and women in uniform put their lives on the line to protect this great country and the thought that their sincere religious concerns are not being handled with fairness and impartiality is infuriating,” Sen. Scott said. “My bill, the Defending Religious Accommodations Act, will require the Government Accountability Office to immediately launch a full investigation into how requests for religious exemptions are being handled, and force the Biden administration’s appointees at the Pentagon to finally be held accountable.
“While our military is facing growing recruitment and retention issues, threatening America’s national security and military readiness, the last thing we need is more harmful bureaucracy hurting our military members,” he added.
Casey Harper works at The Center Square’s Washington, D.C., bureau.