U.S. Navy SEALs v. Biden Ruling: Military Vax Mandate Illegal

Cypriot Navy special forces and US Navy SEALS take part in a joint US-Cyprus rescue exercise in the port of the southern Cypriot port city of Limassol on September 10, 2021. (Photo by Iakovos Hatzistavrou / AFP) (Photo by IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP via Getty Images)
IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP via Getty

A federal judge granted a temporary injunction on Monday against President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate for Navy SEALs on the basis of religious freedom.

Filed in November by First Liberty Institute on behalf of 35 Navy SEALs and three reservists, the lawsuit sought a religious exemption from the Biden administration’s Department of Defense vaccine mandate as thousands of U.S. military members face possible discharge for not complying. In the decision, Judge Reed O’Connor, U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of Texas, ruled that the coronavirus pandemic “provides the government no license to abrogate” the First Amendment rights of America’s servicemen and women.

“Our nation asks the men and women in our military to serve, suffer, and sacrifice. But we do not ask them to lay aside their citizenry and give up the very rights they have sworn to protect,” the judge wrote.

While the judge acknowledged that the military provides members a pathway to a religious exemption for vaccines, he dismissed this as mere “theater,” noting that no serious weight or attention is given to religious exemptions as they are to secular exemptions, such as potential allergic reactions.

The mandate treats comparable secular activity (e.g., medical exemptions) more favorably than religious activity. First, the Navy has granted only secular exemptions—it has never granted a religious exemption from the vaccine. Second, even if the Navy were to grant a religious exemption, that exemption would still receive less favorable treatment than its secular counterparts. Those who receive religious exemptions are medically disqualified. Those who receive medical exemptions are not. But the activity itself—forgoing the vaccine—is identical. Given the irrationality of the mandate, “[i]t is unsurprising that such litigants are entitled to relief.”

Describing the pathway to religious exemption as a “fiftystep process to adjudicate religious accommodation requests,” the judge argued that requests are essentially denied before “the moment they begin.” 

The first fifteen steps require an administrator to update a prepared disapproval template with the requester’s name and rank. In essence, the Plaintiffs’ requests are denied the moment they begin. That prepared letter is then sent to seven offices for review. After those offices review the disapproval letter, the administrator packages the letter with other religious accommodation requests for final signature. The administrator then prepares an internal memo to Vice Admiral John Nowell, asking him to “sign . . . letters disapproving immunization waiver requests based on sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Then, at step thirty-five of the process, the administrator is told—for the first time—to read through the religious accommodation request. At that point, the disapproval letter has already been written, the religious accommodation request and related documents has already been reviewed by several offices, the disapproval has already been packaged with similar requests, and an internal memo has already been drafted requesting that Vice Admiral Nowell disapprove the religious accommodation request.

Acknowledging the bias against religious freedoms, the judge determined that the Biden administration failed to show a compelling interest in forcing service members to violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs” in accordance with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

“Without individualized assessment, the Navy cannot demonstrate a compelling interest in vaccinating these particular Plaintiffs,” the judge argued. “Even if Defendants have a broad compelling interest in widespread vaccination of its force, they have achieved this goal without the participation of the thirty-five Plaintiffs here.”

“Several Plaintiffs have tested positive for antibodies, showing the presence of natural immunity. With a 99.4% vaccination rate, the Navy’s herd immunity is at an all-time high,” he continued. “COVID-19 treatments are becoming increasingly effective at reducing hospitalization and death.”

The case is U.S. NAVY Seals 1-26 v. Biden, No. 4:21-cv-1236 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. The case against Biden as president was dismissed while the injunction against his administration’s policy was granted.

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