Appeals court: Navy service members requesting religious exemption to COVID vaccine should not be punished

Appeals court: Navy service members requesting religious exemption to COVID vaccine should not be punished.

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Denver Newsroom, Mar 1, 2022 / 14:48 pm (CNA).

A federal appeals court on Monday ruled to keep a lower court order in place, temporarily preventing the Navy and the Department of Defense from taking adverse action against a group of three dozen service members who object to the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds. 

In the Feb. 28 decision, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction issued by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas in January, which prevents the Department of Defense from taking “any adverse action” against the plaintiffs in the case because of requests for religious accommodation. 

In August 2021, the Pentagon announced that all service members would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and over 99% now are. The Department of Defence had maintained that “[f]orcing the Navy to deploy plaintiffs while they are unvaccinated threatens the success of critical missions and needlessly endangers the health and safety of other service members.”

The 3-judge appeals court wrote, however, that the Navy has “not demonstrated ‘paramount interests’ that justify vaccinating these 35 Plaintiffs against COVID-19 in violation of their religious beliefs,” noting that the Navy has granted temporary medical exemptions to “hundreds” of service members. 

The Navy has not accommodated any religious request to abstain from any vaccination in seven years, and to date it has denied all religiously based claims for exemption from COVID-19 vaccines, the court said. 

First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group, in January filed a class-action lawsuit with the goal of blocking the Navy’s COVID vaccine mandate for all U.S. Navy personnel who have requested religious accommodation. 

As a result of the initial lawsuit, Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on Jan. 3 issued an injunction preventing the Department of Defense from taking “any adverse action” against the plaintiffs in the case because of requests for religious accommodation. 

Catholic bishops across the country have issued varying guidance for Catholics wishing to seek conscientious objections to COVID-19 mandates. A few have expressed explicit support for Catholics wishing to seek exemptions; some have said that Catholics may seek exemptions, but must make the case for their own conscience without the involvement of clergy; and some have stated that Catholic teaching lacks a basis to reject vaccination mandates.  

In advance of the announcement of the Navy’s mandate, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services said that receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States was morally permissible, and that a vaccine mandate “seems prudent” and would be “very similar” to mandates already enforced in the military. 

However, Broglio has also said that service members should not be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine against their consciences. 

“The denial of religious accommodations, or punitive or adverse personnel actions taken against those who raise earnest, conscience-based objections, would be contrary to federal law and morally reprehensible,” Broglio said in October.

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