A Texas federal judge has barred the Defense Department from penalizing 35 Navy SEALs who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 on religious grounds.
US District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth granted a preliminary injunction Monday in the lawsuit filed against the Navy and the Pentagon on behalf of the group of Christian active-duty special operations members.
O’Connor noted that the SEALs contended that the military’s vaccine policy “violates their religious freedoms under the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
The judge, appointed by George W. Bush, further noted that the Navy has not granted any religious exemptions to any vaccine and “merely rubber stamps each denial.”
“The Navy service members in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect,” O’Connor wrote in his order. “The COVID-19 pandemic 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.”
The Navy, following up on the Defense Department’s vaccine mandate of August 2021, required all active-duty service members to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 28 or face disciplinary action.
The judge cited the Navy’s own policy, which states that “personnel refusing to receive vaccines … based solely on personal or religious beliefs are disqualified.”
First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedoms, sued on behalf of the SEALs.
“Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values,” Mike Berry, the institute’s general counsel, said in a written statement.
“Punishing SEALs for simply asking for a religious accommodation is purely vindictive and punitive,” Berry added. “We’re pleased that the court has acted to protect our brave warriors before more damage is done to our national security.”
In the August order announcing the mandate, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the vaccine “is necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people.”
More than 99 percent of Navy personnel have been vaccinated.