Berkeley Simmons’s husband has requested a religious accommodation to the U.S. military’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. She’s worried about what comes next for her family—and the Marine Corps. “It’s like a big old cloud that’s just heavily draped around so many people’s necks. Are they going to approve the exemptions or not? …What are we going to do? What happens when there’s no money?” she wonders.
The Corps does offer a definite answer—a Marine who has requested an exemption can still choose to receive a vaccine. Simmons points out the palpable irony of the situation: Marines who “took an oath to protect and defend our country from enemies foreign and domestic and fight for the freedoms of the Constitution” are now being denied one of its most cherished rights, “religious liberty.”
To date, the U.S. Marine Corps has not granted a single religious accommodation to its COVID-19 requirement, despite its policy to do so unless there is a “compelling government interest.” According to several Marines going through the process, it does not intend to do so, and will kick them out once the vaccination deadline passes, stripping them of veterans’ benefits.
In June 2021, Rep. Thomas Massie R-Kentucky, introduced HR 3860, a bill that would prohibit any vaccine mandate in the military, after receiving calls from constituents in the military who were facing adverse conditions based on their vaccination status. Massie’s bill would prohibit a vaccination mandate in the military and prevent any adverse actions from being taken against military members who chose not to receive the vaccine.
Despite some political resistance in Congress to mandates, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued the vaccination requirement for the armed forces on August 24, 2021. Once he did so, options for those who did not want to take the vaccine were quickly limited. According to Marine Corps guidance, even those who have already recovered from COVID-19 and have natural immunity are required to be vaccinated. The remaining options are to request a medical exemption or religious accommodation.
The Marine Corps, in accord with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is supposed to grant religious accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs except under very specific, narrow conditions. Massie said that, to his knowledge, “none are being granted.” In his opinion, to offer religious accommodations “with no intention of granting any is unconstitutional and fraudulent. The people in the military offering them, knowing none will be granted, ought to be held accountable through civil and criminal means.”
Many others allege a concerted effort to deny all religious accommodations is being undertaken by the Defense Department. Attorney Mike Berry, a Marine Corps reservist representing Navy SEALs in a lawsuit against the Biden administration, told Harris Faulkner that “[W]e’ve been told from the Pentagon, from the very highest levels, that the DOD does not intend to approve any religious accommodation requests.”
In the Air Force, as of its November 3 vaccination deadline, zero religious accommodation requests had been granted. Multiple Marines who spoke on condition of anonymity also stated that directions had come from the highest levels of the Pentagon and Marine Corps Headquarters that no religious accommodations would be granted.
On October 20, Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Andrew Wood said no religious accommodations have been granted to date, and that “there is no record of any religious accommodations for vaccination being granted by HQMC in the past 10 years.” When reached for comment on this story, Wood restated Marine Corps policy that “all current exemption requests are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” but declined to give any statistics on how many religious accommodations had been requested, approved, or denied.
Simmons’ husband submitted his request for a religious accommodation 72 days ago, but this request has not yet reached Marine Corps headquarters for a decision. This delay alone has taken longer than policy allows to decide such requests, which are supposed to be ruled on within 30 days. According to Simmons, “it’s being purposely slow rolled in order to put additional pressure” on her husband to get vaccinated.
The delay also precludes the possibility of an appeal if the request isn’t adjudicated before the deadline. Delaying decisions also makes the compliance rate for the Marine Corps look higher than it actually is, as the Corps does not consider a Marine to have “refused the vaccine” until the accommodations process is completed.
According to Simmons, the Corps’ response to the vaccine-concerned is vindictive and goes beyond just wanting to ensure force readiness. “It would be one thing if the military said, okay, well, you know what? These men and women want to get out. They don’t like the shot. We’ll give them a separation package and we’ll give them the retirement that maybe that they’ve earned,” she says. “They are saying, no, none of it. You’re done.”
“For 17 years, my husband has answered the phone calls in the middle of the night, has picked up body parts and filled [out] the missing reports of friends, seen combat, had to deal with suicide, recently lost friends to a failed pull-out of a 20-year war in Afghanistan. And this is what’s left of our Marine Corps. This is utter betrayal.”