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Coast Guard to scrutinize members requesting religious exemptions for mandatory COVID vaccine, leaked document reveals

Coast Guard members receive the COVID-19 vaccinations in San Pedro, Calif., Feb. 19, 2021. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Aidan Cooney)
September 24, 2021

The U.S. Coast Guard is planning to closely scrutinize service members who request a religious exemption to the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine, according to a leaked internal document.

A memo provided to the religious liberty organization the First Liberty Institute and shared with American Military News, appears to show instructions the service’s attorneys have prepared for Coast Guard chaplains to ask service members to determine if their stated religious objections are just “a ruse to avoid the vaccine.”

The First Liberty Institute said it obtained the memo from Coast Guard chaplains who wish to remain anonymous out of concerns for reprisal.

“When I reviewed the memo, I was very alarmed,” First Liberty General Counsel Mike Berry told American Military News. Berry said the memo was specifically prepared by military attorneys.

Berry, who served for seven years on active duty as an attorney with the U.S. Marine Corps and who now serves in the Marine Corps Reserve, said the Coast Guard memo “was as bad as I’ve ever seen, violating the constitution and the law and what DOD regulations require.”

The document tells chaplains to note if service members who come to a meeting to discuss their religious waiver requests “begin by discussing concerns about safety, politics, etc.”

“Even if the member eventually states that it is a belief based on religion, note their first expression and how they moved from non-religious beliefs to religious ones,” the memo continues.

Berry said the test proposed in the Coast Guard memo, to see if service members go outside strict religious grounds to discuss their objections to the vaccine is unreasonable. “You can sort of stack your requests right, you can have a medical objection” in addition to a religious one.

Last month, after the FDA granted full approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin moved to require COVID-19 vaccines for the entire military. Biden also extended the vaccine mandate to all federal employees and his Department of Labor issued a rule requiring businesses with 100 or more employees to require vaccination or mandatory weekly COVID tests for all employees.

The memo also tells chaplains to ask service members to “describe how they consistently keep the tenets of their faith and demonstrate those in their daily life.”

The memo also appears to describe a supplemental table of quotes from leaders of various religions and advises chaplains to discuss with service members of those specific religions if they agree with “the quotes from the religious leaders cited” and “ask how their beliefs differ from those of the religious leaders.”

The memo further advises chaplains to ask service members how long they have held their current religious beliefs or been a part of their current religious faith and ask them to reconcile their religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine “with past willingness to be vaccinated.”

For service members who cite the use of stem or fetal cells in the development of vaccines, the memo advises chaplains to ask whether the service member has used “Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Aspirin, Ibuprofen,
Benadryl, or Claritin, all of which were developed using fetal cells.” The memo tells chaplains to ask whether those service members will refrain from using those medicines.

“It’s none of the government’s business as to whether or not, or to what degree or extent I’m willing to apply my sincerely held beliefs,” Berry said.

Berry said the Department of Defense has “absolutely no business prying into a service member’s personal affairs, personal religious affairs and religious beliefs to that degree.”

In his experience as a military attorney, Berry said he would advise chaplains that they can ask a service member if they have a sincerely held objection to a vaccine and then to ask that service member to explain the basis of their objection. From there, Berry said chaplains are entitled to take into consideration things like a service member’s body language and demeanor to make “their own estimation of the person’s sincerity, how sincere they appear to be in this, and that’s it.”

The memo specifically also gives specific advice for chaplains in cases where service members cite 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” Chaplains are advised to ask “what steps they take to ensure that other foreign substances are not introduced into the body,” including asking service members if they have any tattoos.

Berry said that specific style of question asks chaplains to make judgment calls in cases where two different religions could hold different opinions of the same scripture.

“What if a chaplain happens to be a Catholic chaplain and the service member they’re interviewing happens to be a protestant and so the protestant is fighting all sorts of things that are not consistent with Catholic doctrine,” Berry said.

In response to an American Military News request for comment Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Cmdr Brittany Panetta said, “The Coast Guard provides reasonable accommodations to the observances of the religious faith practiced by individual members when these doctrines or observances will not have an adverse impact on military readiness, individual or unit readiness, unit cohesion, health, safety, discipline, or mission accomplishment. Requests for a religious accommodation are granted or denied on a case-by-case basis and will be informed by input from the member’s command, medical, judge advocate, and military chaplain.”