Following FDA approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in August 2021, President Joe Biden asked the Department of Defense (DoD) to explore adding it to the list of required vaccinations for service members. It wasn’t long before the military began mandating the COVID vaccine. In fact, the Navy set a deadline for all sailors to be vaccinated by November 28, 2021.
Over 99 percent of active-duty sailors have gotten their COVID-19 vaccine, and at least 96 percent met the Navy’s deadline. However, a handful of service members still refuse to get vaccinated, the most common reasons being religious beliefs against vaccinations and hesitancy about the vaccine’s safety. Still, the Navy has a goal to be 100 percent vaccinated, except for those exempted due to medical or administrative reasons.
The History of Vaccine Mandates in the Navy
Despite the concerns about COVID vaccination mandates in the military, the concept is nothing new. In fact, the Navy has mandated vaccines since 1848. The argument is that, in order to fulfill the Navy’s mission, everyone in the fleet must be protected against certain ailments, including the coronavirus. In fact, the few hundred service members with approved medical or administrative exemptions have their positions limited to ensure safety.
In spite of the Navy’s long history with vaccine mandates, the COVID shot is still being disputed. Take a look at the events that transpired between late 2021 and early 2022 that challenge the way the Navy treats service members for refusing the vaccine.
The Navy Began Separating Sailors
In December 2021, the Navy began processing the separations of active-duty sailors who refused to be vaccinated. Before a federal judge in Texas intervened in early January, here’s how the Navy planned to act:
- Sailors who were set to retire or separate on or before June 1, 2022, would have their administrative separation process expedited and receive an honorable discharge (barring any extenuating circumstances).
- Those not eligible for retirement before June 1 would have been processed for administrative separation on the basis of misconduct.
- Those with less than six years of service were to receive an honorable discharge and not face an administrative separation board or board of inquiry.
- Those with more than six years of service were to face an administrative separation board where they would receive no lower than a general discharge. Still, sailors were given the option to waive their boards and be separated with an honorable discharge.
- Those separated for vaccine refusal were to be ineligible for involuntary separation pay and would have to repay any scholarship funds they received from the Navy.
- Those who decided to get the vaccine but missed the November 28 deadline were to have their cases handled individually, with administrative repercussions likely.
Despite these adverse actions against those who refused to vaccinate, Director of Military Personnel James Waters III made this statement: “Let me be clear up front. We want every sailor to receive the vaccine and stay Navy. And if a sailor gets their shot, we will honor that and make every effort to retain them.”
A Federal Judge Intervened
On January 3, 2022, US District Court Judge Reed O’Connor, with the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth, issued a preliminary injunction. This prevented the Navy from punishing 35 Navy sailors who filed a lawsuit again the Biden administration seeking exemption from the vaccine mandate for religious reasons. The lawsuit alleged that the Navy’s actions violated the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The order blocked the Navy from deeming the service members in the lawsuit—including Navy SEALs and members of the Naval Special Warfare Command—as non-deployable or disqualified from Special Operations. “There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment,” O’Connor wrote in his order. “There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”
O’Connor acknowledged that COVID-19 has killed over 80 service members since the pandemic began and said that the court “does not make light of COVID-19’s impact on the military.” However, he criticized the Navy’s religious exemption process, calling it a “theatre” and noting that none of the thousands of service members who have requested religious exemptions for the COVID vaccine have had their requests granted thus far. “In fact,” O’Connor wrote, “in the past seven years, the Navy has never granted a single religious exemption for any vaccine.”
This isn’t the first time the DoD’s vaccine rules have resulted in litigation, but no other military lawsuits have successfully secured a preliminary injunction demanding that the mandate be loosened. Still, this decision follows a similar order from a judge in November blocking the national vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.
Exploring the Arguments in the Lawsuit
The 35 religious objectors in the case argued that their “sincerely held religious beliefs forbid each of them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine for a variety of reasons based upon their Christian faith.” Some plaintiffs specifically argued that they object to any vaccines that “modify” their bodies, which is “an affront to the Creator.” Others said they received “direct, divine instruction not to receive the vaccine.”
One service member, in particular, said he experienced adverse side effects from a previous vaccination and now considers it a “defilement of his body.” The lawsuit states, “Through prayer and reflection, this plaintiff has determined that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine similarly would defile his body.”
The attorney on the case—a former Marine Corps Judge Advocate General (JAG) who continues to serve in the Marine Corps Reserve—said, “Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values. Punishing SEALs for simply asking for a religious accommodation is purely vindictive and punitive.”
It’s worth noting that no major religions oppose COVID-19 vaccinations. Pope Francis, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, even said that getting vaccinated is an “act of love” consistent with the faith. Baptist leaders have also said they support vaccination with comments like, “getting vaccinated is in the best interest of national health.” Still, the leaders of this prominent Protestant denomination oppose mandates, arguing that they “trespass on civil liberties.”
In addition to religious objections, the lawsuit cited rare side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine that cause heart inflammation as a reason for the plaintiffs not wanting to get vaccinated. However, the complications, known as myocarditis and pericarditis, can also result from COVID-19 infection.
Explore Your Legal Rights with Help from a Military Lawyer
Do you have concerns about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine? Are you looking for answers to other military law questions regarding freedom of religion and other Constitutional rights? Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, has the answers you’re looking for. As a former Army JAG officer and an accomplished trial lawyer, Mr. Jordan is well-equipped to provide sound legal advice and defend your rights as a military service member. When you’re ready to act, contact us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411 to speak directly with Mr. Jordan about your case.