Representing nine Air Force service members, First Liberty Institute and the law firm Schaerr Jaffe LLP have filed a federal lawsuit seeking a class-wide temporary restraining order against Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the Department of Defense, and the Secretary of the Air Force for discrimination against those seeking religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Across the U.S. military, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have discharged as many as 4,000 active duty service members for refusing the vaccine. Those who flatly refuse the vaccine without seeking an exemption are still being discharged. But the courts have stalled additional discharges of service members who sought religious exemptions.
According to the military, as many as 20,000 service members have asked for religious exemptions. Thousands have been denied.
In the complaint, the Airmen allege they had each submitted a request for a religious exemption from taking the vaccine and were denied, then were disciplined for trying to get such an exemption.
“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 complaint said.
“Medical and administrative accommodation requesters received no such punitive treatment. Unvaccinated individuals with the same duties as Plaintiffs have not been the subjects of adverse action, simply because their requests were secular rather than religious,” the Airmen added.
“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. 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,” said Mike Berry, director of Military Affairs for First Liberty Institute. “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.”
One of the plaintiffs, Danielle Runyan, a member of the Air Force Reserve and counsel for First Liberty added, “Like many service members, I want to continue faithfully serving my country as I have proudly done for the past 10 years. As the Supreme Court has already recognized, ‘even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.'”
According to First Liberty Institute, the plaintiffs are part of the approximately 2% of Air Force service members who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Representing multiple faiths, they object to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. Without consideration of the ever-changing nature of COVID-19, its variants, or natural immunity, the Air Force has rejected almost all applications for religious accommodation despite approving hundreds of medical and administrative exemptions from its vaccine requirement.
In its complaint, attorneys contend that the Department of Defense is violating the First Amendment to the Constitution, federal law, and Department of Defense regulations. First Liberty says the vaccine mandate substantially burdens the service members’ free exercise of religion, and the Department of Defense has failed to prove it has a compelling government interest, or that there are no less restrictive ways to further its effort to mitigate the COVID-19 virus.
According to its weekly COVID-19 update released on May 24, the Air Force reported it still has 2,527 religious exemption requests pending with 885 on appeal. The service has so far turned down 6,113 requests with 2,756 that are still on appeal.
The Air Force noted in its report that it had only approved 68 such requests with 17 of those coming after an appeal.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force Academy said on May 21 that three cadets who refused the COVID-19 vaccine will not be commissioned as military officers but will graduate with bachelor’s degrees. The Air Force is the only military academy, so far, where cadets are not being commissioned due to vaccine refusal.
This has led one of the cadets to submit paperwork to resign from the academy, according to American Military News.
The other two cadets could be commissioned if they decide to receive the vaccine, according to school officials.
Academy spokesman Dean Miller added that a decision on whether to require the three to reimburse the United States for education costs in lieu of service will be made by the secretary of the Air Force.
The military academies for years have required students under certain circumstances to repay tuition costs if they leave during their junior or senior year. Often those cases involve students with disciplinary issues or similar problems. The costs can be as much as $200,000, or more, and any final decision on repayment is made by the service secretary.
A fourth cadet who had refused the vaccine until about a week ago decided to be vaccinated and will graduate and become an Air Force officer, Miller said.