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Judge temporarily blocks Air Force from punishing unvaccinated officer

U.S. Air Force uniform. (U.S. Air National Guard photo illustration by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Ter Haar)
February 16, 2022

A federal judge issued a restraining order on Tuesday, temporarily blocking the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force from enforcing their COVID-19 vaccine mandate against an Air Force officer.

The Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that handles religious liberty cases, had filed the lawsuit last month on behalf of the Air Force officer, who has served for more than 25 years.

The officer had submitted a religious exemption request to the vaccine. By December, the Air Force had denied her exemption request, as well as her appeal, and gave her less than one week to choose between getting the vaccine, submitting a retirement request, or signifying in writing that she was refusing the vaccine mandate. She was further informed that refusing the vaccine order would be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and “continued refusal will result in involuntary reassignment to the Individual Ready Reserve without pay, benefits, or regular responsibilities.”

In his order, Judge Tilman Self of the U.S. District Court for Georgia’s Middle District, summarized the rejection the female Air Force officer received from her chain of command as “your religious beliefs are sincere, it’s just not compatible with military service.”

Self wrote, “Although the Air Force claims to provide a religious accommodation process, it proved to be nothing more than a quixotic quest for Plaintiff because it was ‘by all accounts, . . . theater.’”

Self noted that throughout the officer’s efforts to get a religious accommodation, the Air Force had not approved a single religious accommodation request. Self also noted that only in the past week had the Air Force granted their first religious accommodations to the COVID shots, well after the female officer was faced with the decision to take the vaccine, retire, or face potential adverse actions as a refuser.

In addition to her religious objections to the vaccine, Self said the plaintiff officer had contracted COVID-19 in December 2020, and then she tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies both in January 2021 and nearly a year later in December 2021, indicating she had enduring natural immunity.

Despite her enduring antibodies, Self wrote that “when it comes to Plaintiff’s argument about natural immunity, [the Air Force] offer nothing in rebuttal other than claiming that she misreads the relevant regulations.”

In his decision, Self granted a preliminary injunction blocking the Department of Defense Military Mandate, the Air Force Military Mandate, and the Air Force Military Order against the female officer and from taking any adverse action against her, including forcing her to retire.

In issuing his order, Self repeatedly cited language from another case, Navy SEAL 1 v. Biden, in which a Navy and Marine officer have also been granted a preliminary injunction against the military vaccine mandate.

“This is a great victory for religious freedom,” Stephen Crampton, Senior Counsel with Thomas More Society, said in an emailed statement to American Military News. “The Air Force had granted over 1,500 medical exemptions by the time we filed this lawsuit, but not a single religious exemption – not one. After we filed, it suddenly decided to start granting or claiming to grant religious exemptions, albeit only a handful.”

“It is disgraceful how the military in general has disrespected fundamental First Amendment rights,” Crampton added. “We are grateful that the court has restored the Free Exercise rights of this courageous officer and are hopeful that her victory will help to protect the rights of conscientious objectors everywhere.”

Thomas More Society Special Counsel Adam Hochschild said, “We hope that this is beginning of the end of the Air Force’s illegal enforcement of these mandates against service members.”