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Pentagon may provide religious exemption for COVID vaccine mandate

U.S. Army Maj. Bielosa Aworh receives COVID-19 vaccine at Fort Bliss, Texas, Feb. 5, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Maxwell Bass)
August 13, 2021

U.S. troops may be able to receive a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes mandatory in mid-September, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said during a meeting with reporters on Tuesday.

“There is a religious exemption possibility for any mandatory vaccine, and there’s a process that we go through to counsel the individual both from a medical and from a command perspective about using a religious exemption,” Kirby said.

According to Kirby, the process generally includes a discussion with both a medical professional and a commander about the risks a service member could face if he or she refuses a vaccine, in addition to how not being vaccinated may impact deployability, assignments and travel. The process for a religious exemption differs by service, he noted.

“We take freedom of religion and worship seriously, in the military, it’s one of the things that we sign up to defend,” Kirby maintained. “And so it’s something that’s done very carefully.”

Personnel may also qualify for an exemption due to medical reasons, Kirby said, including pre-existing conditions.

“The primary care physician will be able to help make that determination,” he said.

While options for an exemption exist, Kirby said the department is confident that troops will “do the right thing” when vaccines are made mandatory.

“We have every expectation that once the vaccines are made mandatory, the troops are going to … do the right thing,” he said. “Going forward with this particular vaccine, the secretary’s expectation is that commanders are going to treat the administration of that vaccine with — as he wrote in his memo — professionalism, skill and compassion.”

Kirby also said individuals who have reservations about taking the vaccine will be given counseling on its safety and efficacy. Hesitant troops will also be counseled on how abstaining from the vaccine could impact teammates, readiness and the mission.

On Monday, official announcements revealed President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are mandating COVID-19 vaccines for all military personnel by September 15.

Currently, there are three COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States. All are approved by the Food and Drug Administration under “emergency use authorization.”

Pfizer and Moderna each have one vaccine, both of which involve two injections, and Johnson and Johnson has a third vaccine that only requires one injection.

“I will seek the President’s approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon the U.S. Food and Drug Agency (FDA licensure), whichever comes first,” Austin said in a military-wide memo released Monday.