Exclusive: Marine Corps Commanders Using Form Letter to Deny Religious Exemptions

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Samuel Davis, right, an intelligence noncommissioned officer in cha
U.S. Marine Corps photo illustration by Sgt. Micha Pierce

Marine Corps commanders across different commands are using the same form letter to deny religious accommodation requests for the coronavirus vaccine, despite a legal requirement to consider each request on an individual basis, according to more than a dozen denial letters viewed by Breitbart News.

The use of the same form letter suggests blanket denials across the service regardless of individual circumstances and testimony, according to one lawyer assisting hundreds of service members seeking religious exemptions.

“They’re all identical, every single one of them. It’s evidence that they’re not evaluating them on an individual basis, which is what the regulations and federal law require, and it’s like somebody just issued a template, and they’re just rubber-stamping them,” said Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty and Marine reservist.

“These don’t address the specific circumstances of their request,” he said.

Marine Corps policy states that “the burden of proof is placed upon the Marine Corps, not the individual requesting the exemption” and that “commanders making final determinations on requests will consider, with appropriate annotation on the determination, the elements of mission accomplishment that form the basis of the compelling governmental interest.”

It adds, “Each request for religious accommodation must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, giving consideration to the full range of facts and circumstances relevant to the specific request. It is essential that commanders articulate the factual basis underlying their decision.”

U.S. Marines Sgt. Maj. James Robertson, left, the sergeant major of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point, Col. Mikel Huber, center, the commanding officer of MCAS Cherry Point, and Lt. Col. Patrick Lindstrom, right, the executive officer of MCAS Cherry Point, pose after receiving the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, on Dec. 23, 2020. The Department of Defense COVID-19 vaccination plan is phased. The vaccine received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration and election to accept the vaccination is voluntary. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jacob Bertram)

U.S. Marines Sgt. Maj. James Robertson, left, Col. Mikel Huber, center, and Lt. Col. Patrick Lindstrom, right, pose after receiving the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, on December 23, 2020.  (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jacob Bertram)

Yet, each denial letter viewed by Breitbart News is identical except for the name and unit of the requester, date of the request, and officer denying the request. The letters are all signed by Marine Lt. Gen. David Ottignon, deputy commandant of Manpower & Reserve Affairs for the Marine Corps. In some cases, they are signed “for” Ottignon by Michael Strobl, assistant deputy commandant for Manpower & Reserve Affairs.

The denial letters were the same for a Marine who requested religious accommodation due to a miscarriage and a Marine who had been a practicing Christian for at least 13 years, according to religious accommodation request packets reviewed by Breitbart News.

In the first case, the Marine’s commanding officer, a Navy commander, wrote that he had interviewed her and that she was “devastated by the loss of her child to miscarriage and is still struggling to make sense of this tragedy.” The commander added, “Consequently, it is my opinion, [name redacted] is severely uncertain in her ability to become pregnant and believes at this time her conscience will not permit her to receive the vaccine and potentially place her fertility in jeopardy.”:

For that reason, [name redacted] believes receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is a violation to her conscience and therefore is requesting religious accommodation. … The service member is devoted to her moral principles and appears very sincere in considering this decision to request religious accommodation.

In the second case, the Marine wrote in his request, “I am a devout Christian, and receiving the Covid-19 vaccine would violate my deeply and sincerely held religious beliefs and create a substantial burden on me.”

His request was accompanied by a personal statement from a retired Marine attesting to his faith, as well as a statement from his senior pastor, who attested that the Marine belongs to a congregation opposed to vaccines that would cause a person to violate his or her sincerely-held religious beliefs.

Both of their requests were denied with the same form letter that contained the same language, one signed by Strobl and the other by Ottignon.

The Marines came from all across the Marine Corps, including from Yuma, AZ, Camp Lejeune, NC, and Marine Special Operations Command.

“In my opinion, it’s an orchestrated effort,” Berry said.

Marine Request by Breitbart News

Marine Request and Denial 2 by Breitbart News

The Marine Corps, when asked if requests for religious accommodation were being considered individually and given individualized responses, said in a statement:

Marines who request exemption due to religious accommodation will have their request forwarded to Manpower and Reserve Affairs for adjudication. All current exemption requests are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Each request will be given full consideration with respect to the facts and circumstances submitted in the request.

As to whether the Marine Corps has approved any requests for religious accommodation, it said, “We will publish a consolidated report of the number of approved exemptions once the deadline for vaccination has passed.”

Berry said he is not aware of any religious accommodation requests that have been granted for any service. According to Military.com, the Marine Corps has not approved any religious accommodation requests as of October 20.

The Navy, which has a separate process, confirmed in a statement to Breitbart News on Friday that it has received religious accommodation requests but has also not approved any.

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Alen Ford, an airframes mechanic with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269, 2nd Marine Aircraft Group, receives the coronavirus vaccine at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, February 11, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jesus Sepulveda Torres)

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Alen Ford, an airframes mechanic with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269, 2nd Marine Aircraft Group, receives the coronavirus vaccine at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, February 11, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jesus Sepulveda Torres)

“To date, multiple religious accommodation requests related to the COVID vaccine mandate have been adjudicated and none have yet been approved,” a Navy spokesman said in a statement.

The spokesman added, “In the past seven years, no religious exemption from vaccination waivers were approved for any other vaccine.”

He said there have been five permanent medical exemptions granted, however, for conditions that permanently affect an individual such as an allergy to the vaccine. He also said there have been temporary administrative exemptions granted but declined to give a number.

The deadline for active duty and reservist Marines to be fully vaccinated is November 28 and December 28 respectively. The Marine Corps is already warning it will separate Marines who are not fully vaccinated by the deadlines.

As of October 20, 17% of Marines were not fully vaccinated, and 8% had not received any vaccine dosages, according to Military.com. As for the Navy, 7% were not fully vaccinated, and 2% have not received any vaccine dosages.

Earlier this week, journalist Liz Wheeler posted a series of tweets alleging that the Navy was issuing blanket denials to requests for religious accommodations. Wheeler posted two nearly identical denial memos to two separate religious accommodation requests at the same unit.

Wheeler alleged that a Navy commander’s boss, a Navy captain, provided her with a standard denial memo and instructed her to use it for all requests at her command.

Wheeler alleged that the Navy commander “knows she is violating policy & in fact complained to colleagues about it.”

Wheeler said she obtained copies of two sworn affidavits from sailors who allegedly heard the commander claim she did not want to issue blanket denials of all religious exemption requests but was forced to by her boss. Wheeler also posted portions of the alleged affidavits, which appear to be notarized. Breitbart News has not independently verified the documents’ veracity.

Wheeler also alleged that the template for the denial memos came from a Judge Advocate General officer named LTJG Carlos Pagan who appears to work for Rear Adm. Peter Garvin, commander of Naval Training & Education Command (NETC), and has no role in consideration of the religious accommodation requests.

Wheeler also posted correspondence from the captain’s second in command casting doubt on a requester’s request for religious accommodation and citing an “aggressively anti-abortion site that insults & stigmatizes pro-lifers.”

She posted other additional memos that used the same denial memo, although only slightly altered.

Breitbart News also asked the Navy whether the religious requests were being considered on a case-by-case basis.

Lieutenant Winston Young gets his first coronavirus vaccine at Naval Hospital Okinawa, Japan, February 11, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Lieutenant Winston Young/Released)

Lieutenant Winston Young gets his first coronavirus vaccine at Naval Hospital Okinawa, Japan, February 11, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Lieutenant Winston Young/Released)

“As we continue to review and adjudicate such requests, each will continue to be given full consideration with respect to the specific facts and circumstances submitted,” the Navy spokesman said.

Berry said he suspects the denials are happening across all the services.

“The fact that the both the Navy and the Marine Corps are issuing carbon copy denials, I would suspect that the Army and the Air Force are doing the same — and that tells me that this is probably an orchestrated effort within the Pentagon to do this across all the branches of the military,” Berry said.

He said the handling of religious accommodation cases has been very different than with transgender troop cases.

“When transgender service members were asking for waivers to be allowed to continue to serve, I am very confident that those were handled on a very case-by-case basis and that they were treated in accordance with the law,” he said.

“So it’s very disappointing that the DOD seems to be treating religion and religious freedom far less favorably than it’s treating other issues,” he said.

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