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Several Navy SEALs challenging military vaccine mandate in Fort Worth federal courtroom

U.S. Marines and sailors with III Marine Expeditionary Force receive COVID-19 vaccines at the U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa, Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, Jan. 12, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Francesca Landis)

Two Navy SEALs and a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician testified Monday that they have been refused to be granted religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine mandate imposed by the Biden administration and the Department of Defense.

The three enlisted service members told U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor they have suffered consequences for seeking the exemptions.

Their testimony came Monday morning in a Fort Worth federal courtroom as 35 U.S. Navy SEALs and other Naval special warfare personnel filed a lawsuit last month seeking a preliminary injunction against the policy.

O’Connor did not make a ruling Monday following the almost four-hour hearing on the lawsuit.

The hearing was in the Eldon B. Mahon Federal Courthouse in Fort Worth because at least one of the enlisted service members is in the North Texas area.

“The plaintiffs need relief,” said Heather Hacker, one of the attorneys representing the service members, in closing statements Monday morning. “This mandate takes their ability to be Navy SEALs.”

President Joe Biden directed on July 29 that the Department of Defense add COVID-19 vaccine to its list of required immunizations for all service members. Weeks later, Navy officials told service members that failure to comply by Nov. 28 would result adverse consequences.

On Friday, a federal appeals court panel allowed President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for larger private employers to move ahead, reversing a previous decision on a requirement that could affect some 84 million U.S workers, according to the Associated Press.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overrules a decision by a federal judge in a separate court that had paused the mandate nationwide.

In the Navy SEALs case, First Liberty Institute filed the lawsuit in November on behalf of 35 enlisted service members who say their rights have been violated and the mandate is unlawful.

First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit interest law firm based in Plano and one of the largest legal organizations in the nation dedicated to defending religious freedom for Americans.

The enlisted service members were identified as Navy Seal 2, Navy Seal 3 and Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician 1 because of national security reasons.

Navy Seal 3 testified Monday that he got support for a religious exemption to the vaccine from his chaplain, but it was denied a few weeks ago by a Navy official.

“I was never given any reason for my request to be denied,” he testified Monday.

The three enlisted service members testified Monday they have been reassigned positions in the Navy as consequences for seeking the exemptions.

The majority of the plaintiffs are Navy SEALs, according to the lawsuit.

Nine U.S. senators including Ted Cruz and 38 United States Representatives have filed a federal court document in support of the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.

The enlisted service members object to the vaccine mandate based on their religious beliefs as the plaintiffs are members of various denominations, but the three main branches of Christianity are Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant.

The lawsuit states the service members are unable to receive any of the vaccines due to what they believe and understand is a connection between the vaccines and their testing, development, or production using aborted fetal cell lines.

Service members do not object to safety measures such as mask-wearing, physical distancing, regular testing, sick leave and teleworking.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs believe the vaccine mandates violate their rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The lawsuit noted that military officials have the discretion in granting religious accommodations, but in the past seven years, no religious exemptions from vaccination waivers had been approved for any other vaccine.

Some service members noted that there has been retaliation for religious exemption requests, according to the lawsuit.


(c) 2021 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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