By BETHANY BLANKLEY
THE CENTER SQUARE CONTRIBUTOR
(The Center Square) — The U.S. military continues to deny COVID-19 religious exemptions to service members, Liberty Counsel argues, after reports were filed by each department of the military ahead of a U.S. District court hearing scheduled for today.
Liberty Counsel sued on behalf of military plaintiffs’ whose religious exemptions were denied, and as a result faced discharge, court martial or termination.
Judge Steven Merryday last week granted a temporary restraining order for two plaintiffs, a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and a U.S. Navy captain and Command Surface warfare officer, as a result of Liberty Counsel’s request for an emergency injunction. Both the Marine and Naval officers were facing imminent removal from their positions of command, and ultimate discharge from the military.
As part of the ongoing litigation process, Judge Merryday ordered each branch of the military to file a detailed report every two weeks on the number of COVID-19 religious exemptions filed and granted. The latest filings received by the court as of Feb. 4 reveal that out of 24,818 religious exemption requests the four branches received, four were granted. At least two of the four were granted to service members who were already leaving the military, Liberty Counsel says.
While religious exemptions continued to be denied, 4,146 medical exemptions were granted.
Liberty Counsel is asking the judge to extend the emergency injunction and grant injunctions for all plaintiffs at a hearing scheduled for Thursday. Other military class members have also received final denials to their appeals from their initial requests, and their “irreversible vaccinate-or-separate choices are imminent,” Liberty Counsel said.
The Orlando-based religious freedom organization maintains that the Biden administration and the Department of Defense “have no legal right to deny the religious exemptions and accommodations from the COVID shots for the military. Our service members need immediate relief from these mandates.”
In his 10-page order granting the emergency injunction, Judge Merryday said he was searching in vain for any justification for the military branches’ refusal to grant accommodations.
“The record in this action establishes that the two service members are very likely to prevail on their claim that their respective branch of the military has wrongfully denied a religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccination,” he wrote. “The record creates a strong inference that the services are discriminatorily and systematically denying religious exemptions without a meaningful and fair hearing and without the showing required under RFRA (while simultaneously granting medical exemptions and permitting unvaccinated persons to continue in service without adverse consequence).
“One struggles to imagine a wholesome and lawful explanation for the results evidenced in this record,” he added. “The military is well aware of the frailty of their arguments in defense of their practices. Those arguments both procedural and substantive, are rejected in an action that is distinctively parallel to this action. … Rejection on the same or a more encompassing basis is likely in this action (especially if the conduct of the military continues along the present lines).”
He notes that the two service members requesting an immediate injunction faced “either (1) a most-likely-unlawful deprivation of their accumulated status and standing in the United States military, as well as prospective advancement and benefits, or (2) deprivation of their constitutional and statutory rights to Free Exercise and the statutory right to receive a religious exemption unless the military can meet the statutory burden of proof, which the military has not and likely cannot. On the other hand, the military faces a trivial, if any, prospect of material injury …”
Judge Merryday’s ruling was “a great victory for religious freedom,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said. “It is shameful how the military is treating these honorable service members. The military under the Biden administration is denying every religious exemption request while granting medical exemptions. The abuse and pressure being placed upon these military members is unconscionable and must stop.”The lawsuit was filed after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a memo directing “the Secretaries of the Military Departments to immediately begin full vaccination of all members of the Armed Forces under DoD authority on active duty or in the Ready Reserve, including the National Guard, who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”