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Air Force fighter pilot punished, suspended from flying for refusing to wear COVID mask

An Air Force pilot conducts pre-flight checks in a T-38 Talon at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Davis Donaldson)
June 25, 2021

A Mississippi-based U.S. Air Force fighter pilot’s flight status and access to classified information was suspended earlier this month and his commanding officer subjected him to non-judicial punishment for refusing to wear a mask mandated by the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 protocols. The case was first revealed to the public on Thursday.

Religious liberty non-profit Liberty Counsel announced on Thursday they are representing the unnamed pilot, referred to as Capt. “John Doe.” Liberty Counsel said “Doe” had filed for a religious accommodation request to allow him to serve without having to wear a mask, but was still punished for not wearing one.

“Even though the Air Force has invested more than $2,000,000 in Captain ‘Doe’s’ training, he has now been relieved of his duties despite seeking a religious accommodation,” Liberty Counsel said of the case. “Multiple Department of Defense, Air Force and base policies explicitly require a ‘religious exemption’ among other exceptions to the COVID mask mandates.”

On June 10, the Liberty Counsel sent a letter to Air Force Secretary John Roth explaining “Doe’s” religious objections to the mask orders. The underlying argument is that masks are not effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and are instead serve a “social narrative” or “orthodoxy” not supported by science.

The Liberty Counsel referenced emails by Dr. Anthony Fauci that were recently released through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. In one Feb. 4, 2020 email discussing masks, Fauci said in part, “The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep[ing] out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you.”

Fauci would ultimately come to support widespread mask usage and, in an NBC News interview in January of this year, even advocated wearing double masks.

Liberty Counsel’s letter to Roth states, “A mask mandate may offend the conscience of an objector, forcing him to confess ‘by act’ his faith in what he perceives as a false narrative. Many Christians believe that support of a false narrative is participation in a lie, which is sin.”

On May 13, the Air Force updated its COVID-19 mask policy to allow vaccinated service members to unmask. The policy also prohibits the supervisors from asking anyone about their vaccination status. The policy could technically allow someone to go unvaccinated and lie in order to go unmasked, but “Doe,” who is unvaccinated, has refused to lie about his vaccine status in order to be able to take off his mask.

The Liberty Counsel letter including records of communications between “Doe” and military chaplain services. In his emails to chaplain services, “Doe” said, “From the beginning of this process, I have been upfront with my command about my religious beliefs. Instead of feigning compliance with mask requirements (like many of my colleagues) I chose to pursue a path of honesty with my leadership. Contrary to their assertions, my actions demonstrate a respect for command and authority rather than the cowardly path of feigned compliance.”

“Doe” noted that he used up much of his leave time waiting to have his religious exemption request processed and that upon exhausting all of his options to obtain the religious exemption, he was promised punishment for refusing to wear a mask.

“On 8 Jun 21, I came to work and received a Letter of Admonishment (LOA),” the pilot wrote. “This process will continue so long as I am denied an accommodation to telework. In essence, I am being forced through a disciplinary process that will lead to eventual discharge or court-martial for expressing my religious beliefs.”

Liberty Counsel argues that in accordance with Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) guidance, “DoD Components will normally accommodate practices of a Service member based on sincerely held religious belief.” In deciding to deny a religious accommodation, the RFRA also states “the burden of proof is placed upon the DoD Component, not the individual requesting the exemption” to determine whether there is a compelling reason to deny the accommodation.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told the Washington Examiner the service is looking into “Doe’s” particular case.

This story was updated to correct the state in which “Capt. Doe” was based.