This column was originally published at Townhall.com on January 7, 2022.
Dulles, Virginia – A federal courthouse is not typically the terrain on which Navy SEALs fight on behalf of their fellow Americans, but this week it proved to be a decisive venue for them.
On January 3, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor issued an injunction against the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Navy, barring them from taking adverse action against 35 servicemembers who sought a religious exemption from DoD’s vaccine mandate. The group includes Navy SEALs and other members of the Navy Special Warfare Command who hold strong religious convictions preventing them from taking the vaccine while remaining true to their faith.
The troops brough suit under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Among other reasons, they cited objection to vaccines developed with aborted fetal cells and the preservation of bodily integrity. The judge did not disappoint.
“The COVID-19 pandemic,” Judge Reed O’Connor instructed, “provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution,” he wrote.
The judge’s ruling is welcome and important. This group of Navy personnel are some of the most skilled special operators in the world; they are elite and highly trained; they are entrusted with the defense of our nation and are called upon for the most difficult assignments; they are men of integrity and courage; they have sacrificed; and they desire simply to serve their country while also serving their God. Their actions are admirable, but Navy brass have treated them with contempt.
Their devotion to God and respect for human life, properly balanced against their warrior duties, make them all the more valuable to our military. These are the attributes we want in America’s warfighters. The Navy should work to retain them, rather than eager to kick them out.
In his ruling, Judge O’Connor cited testimony from the servicemembers who were told by their commanders that “senior leadership of the Naval Special Warfare has no patience or tolerance for service members who refuse COVID-19 vaccination for religious reasons and wants them out of the SEAL community.”
In another instance, one of the SEALs was ordered to skip an appointment seeking medical attention for his traumatic brain injury because he was not vaccinated. It didn’t matter that the medical facility had no requirement for vaccination.
It’s important to note that the Navy has no problem with certain troops being unvaccinated. The Washington Examiner reports the Navy has approved more than 300 requests for medical exemptions and issued 74 administrative accommodations. However, they have denied every request for a religious clearance ensuring that only those sailors who are unvaxxed for religious reasons are denied absolution and targeted for excommunication.
In addition, those who are unvaxxed for medical reasons retain their deployable status while the religious unvaxxed are classified as permanently non-deployable. Even if a religious exemption was approved, the servicemember would be unable to deploy, losing extra pay and promotion opportunities.
The Navy is selectively and unfairly applying the mandate and its exemption process. Servicemembers have a religious exemption available to them, but the Navy has no intent to approve any such request. “The Navy provides a religious accommodation process,” wrote Judge O’Connor in his ruling, “but by all accounts, it is theater,” accusing the service of “rubber stamp[ing] each denial.”
Our troops deserve better. The ability to practice one’s religion is a basic freedom guaranteed under the Constitution they swear an oath to protect. The least we can do for those who put their lives on the line to protect our rights is for us to protect the rites they wish to observe. President Biden habitually ends his speeches with the words, “May God protect our troops.” We could ask the same of their commander in chief.