Mixed messages from the higher-ups, unclear repercussions for refusal, a disparity in treatment among different states and branches of the military, a range of deadlines, and goalpost-shifting on the meaning of religious exemptions have converged to create mass chaos throughout the military as tens of thousands of yet-unvaccinated service members grapple with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and many seek exemptions.
The Pentagon has promised that these requests for accommodation, which are mostly religious but include some medical, will be considered on a “case-by-case” basis, but that assurance provides no clarity about the military’s subjective process for assessing the sincerity of religious belief. Nor does it grant hope to the many unvaccinated members of the Armed Forces whose personal convictions are presently being scrutinized and might be disregarded.
Vaccination Rates and Deadlines Vary
Deadlines are all over the place. The Air Guard and Reserve deadline is Dec. 2, with a Marine Corps and Navy deadline of Nov. 28 and a deadline for Army soldiers of Dec. 15. The date for Army National Guard and Reserve isn’t until June 30, 2022.
The deadline for members of the Air Force and Space Force already passed at the beginning of November, with the Air Force immediately discharging 40 entry-level service members and preparing to address the roughly 10,000 troops who still aren’t vaccinated. Most are awaiting the verdict on their requests for religious accommodation, while others are seeking “administrative accommodations” if they are about to retire. Some lone airmen or small groups of them spread around the globe reportedly don’t have nearby commanders giving them clear orders about getting the vaccine.
Vaccination rates among the branches are a bit of a toss-up too. At the beginning of November, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that 93 percent of the Marine Corps and 97 percent of the Air Force had received the vaccine, with the Army being “in the 90th percentile.”
As of last week, 96 percent of the Navy’s active-duty sailors were reportedly fully vaccinated, with 99.5 percent having received at least one dose, but the Navy has granted only six permanent medical exemptions among the remaining almost 2,000 members so far and zero religious accommodations.
What About Religious Exemptions?
Things aren’t looking good for those seeking religious accommodations, especially sailors. A Navy representative told Military.com that no religious exemptions have been granted in that branch in at least seven years. And according to an administrative announcement on Monday, sailors who are denied an exemption will have only five days to get their first dose or else be discharged.
The circumstances surrounding discharge for vaccine refusal has also been muddy, with service members receiving mixed messages. For instance, while the Navy has said that the lowest discharge rating a sailor can receive for refusing a vaccine is “general (under honorable conditions)” absent any other factors, the Biden administration has supported the idea of dishonorable discharge.
Back in September, the Biden White House said it “strongly opposes” a 2022 defense spending bill provision that would prevent the Defense Department from dishonorably discharging service members who won’t get the coronavirus shot.
“To enable a uniformed force to fight with discipline, commanders must have the ability to give orders and take appropriate disciplinary measures,” the White House said in a statement.
SEALs Are Taking It to Court
On behalf of dozens of Navy SEALs and other Special Warfare Command service members, First Liberty is going after the Biden administration and Defense Department for their refusal to grant religious exemptions. This follows reports last month of SEALs facing harassment and intimidation over seeking religious accommodations, including warnings that the Navy might seek to recover from each service member the costs of their training, which could be more than $1 million per SEAL.
The complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, details how the plaintiffs were treated when they sought exemptions. Several were told that any religious accommodation would prevent them from being deployed. Others received a formal warning, which said that special operations personnel who rejected the vaccine on religious grounds would be disqualified from special ops duty absent a special waiver, which would also affect their deployment and would mean losing their “special warfare” pay.
Many of the plaintiffs had already received official denials of their requests, while others had been warned they won’t be accepted. According to the complaint, none of the plaintiffs are aware of any “similarly situated” members of the military who have received exemptions.
“The fact that the government has not granted a single religious exemption from the vaccine mandate shows that the Biden administration does not care about religious freedom. Instead, this appears to be an attempted ideological purge of our military,” First Liberty General Counsel Mike Berry, whose clients have more than 350 collective years of military service and more than 100 combat deployments, told The Federalist. “These elite warriors should be fighting for our country. Instead, they’re fighting for their careers and their freedom.”
Everything Is Up in the Air
Meanwhile, The Federalist has been in contact with a handful of chaplains across the country in different branches who are not authorized to speak on the record but have reported disparate experiences. As exemption requests have flooded in, some have been pleased with their commanders’ handling and have remained very involved in their advisory roles to service members. At least one chaplain reported being removed from his typical duties of evaluating others’ religious objections while he seeks an exemption for himself.
“Each case is going to be treated specifically and individually as it ought to be,” Kirby said on Nov. 1. “So can we promise you that there will be absolute uniformity across the board? No. And we wouldn’t want to promise that because it wouldn’t be the same way we handle the orders violations for other offenses as well.”
The Pentagon said it couldn’t promise uniformity — and so far, the military has gone above and beyond to deliver on that.