Judge backs Navy Seals’ vaccine religious exemption, says ‘there is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amenment’

by mcardinal

Chris Lieberman, FISM News


A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on Monday banning the Department of Defense from disciplining 35 Navy Seals and other special forces who refused to get vaccinated after being denied a religious exemption.

US District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled in a 26-page decision that the military’s vaccine mandate violates the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “The Navy service members in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect,” wrote O’Connor in his decision. “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.”

O’Connor noted that the Navy had granted many medical exemption requests to the vaccine mandate but had denied all religious ones. He wrote, “The mandate treats comparable secular activity (e.g., medical exemptions) more favorably than religious activity.” In his view, this discrimination violated the religious liberty of the service members.

First Liberty Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to defending religious liberty, represented the Navy Seals. The institute’s general counsel, Mike Berry, wrote in a statement, “Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values. 

He added, “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 ruling comes as the Marine Corps and other branches of the military have already begun enforcing their mandates on service members who refuse the vaccine. Over 200 unvaccinated Marines have already been removed from the service, with no religious exemption requests granted.

The Navy had given its members until Nov. 28 to be fully vaccinated and are expected to begin enforcement soon. In a Dec. 15 administrative message, Vice Admiral John B. Nowell, Jr. wrote, “In order to ensure a fully vaccinated force, U.S. Navy policy is, first, that all Navy service members receive the vaccine as directed and, second, that any who refuse the vaccine be processed for separation at the earliest possible opportunity.” Currently, over 99 percent of the Navy is vaccinated.

Judge O’Connor was appointed to his position in Texas by President Bush in 2007 and has a history of striking down Obama administration policies. Notably, he overturned the entire Affordable Care Act in 2018, a decision that was reversed by the Supreme Court.

The judge’s ruling is the latest setback in the Biden administration’s ongoing legal battles to enforce various vaccine mandates. The Biden administration is expected to challenge the decision.