U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee, on Monday barred the Department of Defense from punishing 35 Navy SEALs who had refused the Covid-19 vaccines on religious grounds.
In response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of those special forces members, O’Connor issued an injunction blocked the enforcement of the mandate from the Pentagon.
The troops cited Christian beliefs that they should not take a vaccine developed from aborted fetal cell lines and saw a modification of their bodies as an “affront to their Creator.” Many Christians have sought vaccination, with Pope Francis urging Catholics to do so on humanitarian grounds.
The suit was filed by First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit that specializes in defending religious liberty. Michael Berry, a lawyer for the institute, said in a phone interview that the ruling “sends a clear message to the Biden administration, to the Pentagon and to the Navy that our service members do not give up their religious freedom when they serve their country.”
O’Connor noted that the Navy has a process by which service members can seek a religious accommodation to avoid vaccination but said that “by all accounts, it is theater.” Twenty-nine of the 35 troops represented in the lawsuit had seen their requests to avoid the vaccine denied, with many appealing, his ruling said.
“The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory,” O’Connor wrote. “It merely rubber stamps each denial.”
Nearly all of the 1 million active-duty military members have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccines. The Defense Department has begun administratively separating those members who did not, beginning with the Marines and the Air Force. The Army and Navy were set to begin the process this month.
The Defense Department has repeatedly cited concerns over how the virus might affect the military’s readiness, as the Pentagon has required other vaccines for years.
Pentagon officials have not responded yet to the ruling.