WASHINGTON – A Texas federal judge has granted a preliminary injunction preventing the Navy from taking action against 35 sailors for refusing on religious grounds to comply with an order to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The injunction is a new challenge to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s decision to make vaccinations mandatory for all members of the military. The vaccination requirement allows for exemptions on religious and other grounds, but none of the thousands of requests for religious exemptions have so far been granted.
There is no indication that the order would affect the military beyond the 35 sailors who pursued Austin and the Navy. The Pentagon did not have an immediate response to a request for comment.
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More than 90% of the military have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including at least 98.5% of active and reservist members of the Navy. Austin says vaccines are a valid and necessary medical requirement to protect service members and their families and ensure the force’s combat readiness.
In his ruling on Monday, US District Judge Reed O’Connor wrote that the Navy’s process for considering a sailor’s request for a religious exemption is flawed and amounts to “drama.”
O’Connor, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote that the group of 35 sailors who sued the government in November and sought a preliminary injunction against the Navy have the right, on religious and prime grounds Amendment, to refuse the vaccination order.
“The Navy members in this matter seek to defend the very freedoms for which they have sacrificed so much to protect,” O’Connor wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic does not give the government any license to abrogate these freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution. “
The O’Connor injunction was first reported by the Washington Post.
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Without commenting on the Texas affair, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby last month defended the validity of military service processes to consider religious exemptions.
“Every exemption requested for religious reasons is evaluated by a chaplain, by a chain of command, by medical experts and is the subject of a lot of thought, and they are all decided on an individual case by case basis,” he said. he declared on December 21.
In his decision in favor of the injunction sought by the 35 Navy sailors, O’Connor wrote that they opposed vaccination on four grounds: “opposition to abortion and the use of aborted fetal cell lines in vaccine development; the belief that altering one’s body is an affront to the Creator; divine instruction not to receive the vaccine and opposition to the injection of traces of animal cells into his body. “
“The complainants’ beliefs about the vaccine are unquestionably sincere, and it is not the role of this tribunal to determine their veracity or accuracy,” the judge wrote.
The sailors who pursued are members of the Naval Special Warfare Command, including SEALs. The lawsuit was filed by First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on defending religious freedom.
At the start of the pandemic, the Navy struggled with a particularly critical COVID-19 outbreak. Hundreds of sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt have been infected, starting in late March while deployed to Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia. The ship was decommissioned in Guam, its captain was relieved of his duties and the crisis led to the resignation of Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly.
Since then, the Navy and other services have managed to avoid major disruption. In December, officials said about two dozen sailors aboard the USS Milwaukee, or about 25 percent of the ship’s crew, had tested positive for COVID-19, keeping the ship away in the port of the Guantanamo Bay naval station in Cuba. On Monday, the Navy announced that the ship had resumed sea.