By CASEY HARPER
THE CENTER SQUARE
(The Center Square) – A group of Navy SEALs obtained a victory in their legal battle against COVID-19 vaccine mandates that could have broad implications for all branches of the military, but they still face a rocky path ahead.
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Judge Reed O’Connor issued a preliminary injunction in favor of the service members, who argue their requests for religious exemption from the vaccine mandate was unfairly denied.
That ruling comes ahead of the beginning of oral arguments Friday for the Biden administration’s other vaccine mandates for private employers.
“The Navy servicemembers in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect,” the ruling reads. “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 legal battle began when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced in August that all U.S. service members would be required to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The Biden administration’s mandate, however, has left many U.S. troops choosing between their military career and the vaccine.
The U.S. Air Force recently announced several service members had been discharged for refusing the vaccine.
Hundreds of Navy SEALs were reportedly told they will not be deployed and will no longer be able to serve as Navy SEALs if they refuse vaccination. In anticipation of their own discharge, a group of Navy service members filed a lawsuit. They say they requested religious exemptions, but were outright rejected. They allege their requests were not taken seriously enough.
Now, the judge’s ruling has prevented the Department of Defense from taking action against the SEALs until a ruling is issued.
“No matter how remote the possibility, Plaintiffs could be compensated for their losses,” the ruling reads. “They could be reinstated with backpay, retroactively promoted, or reimbursed for lost benefits like medical insurance and the GI Bill. But because these injuries are inextricably intertwined with Plaintiffs’ loss of constitutional rights, this Court must conclude that Plaintiffs have suffered irreparable harm. Plaintiffs have suffered the more serious injury of infringement of their religious liberty rights under RFRA and the First Amendment . . .”
Even after the recent victory, the service members still face a tough legal battle that could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values,” said Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, the group representing the plaintiffs. “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.”
Ahead of the court ruling, 47 members in both chambers of Congress filed an amicus brief in support of the SEALs.
“No right is more precious than the right to religious liberty,” the lawmakers said. “That is why the very first clause of the very First Amendment explicitly states that ‘Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise’ of religion. This amendment, case law, and Congress’s decision to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (‘RFRA’) all testify to the fact that, without entrenched, generally applicable, and judicially enforceable protections for religious liberty, lawmakers and government bureaucrats are susceptible to override sincere religious beliefs in favor of what they perceive to be the greater good.”