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Navy violating court order to punish SEALs, sailors seeking vaccine exemption, lawyers say

Members assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group 2. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Russell Rhodes Jr.)
February 03, 2022

The lawyers for 35 U.S. Naval Special Warfare service members are alleging the U.S. Navy is finding ways to punish the service members over their vaccine mandate exemption requests, despite a federal court blocking the Navy from kicking them out for their vaccine refusal.

Last year, First Liberty Institute initiated a lawsuit on behalf of the 35 service members — including 26 Navy SEALs, multiple Special Warfare Combatant Craft Crewmen (SWCC) and Navy Divers, and an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician — arguing in favor of their requests for religious exemptions to the military-wide COVID-19 vaccine mandate ordered by President Joe Biden.

Last month, Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court Texas’ Northern District granted a preliminary injunction, temporarily preventing the Navy from taking any adverse actions against 35 service members on the basis of their requests for religious accommodations to the military-wide vaccine mandate.

Now, in First Liberty Institute’s latest court filing on Monday, the group is arguing the Navy should be held in contempt of the court order after punishing the service members.

In their filing, First Liberty Institute’s lawyers alleged the Navy had blocked one service member, referred to as “Navy SEAL 26” from traveling to receive treatment for traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). The SEAL was first denied permission to leave for the treatments before O’Connor granted the injunction against the Navy, an issue he referenced in his Jan. 3 decision to grant the injunction.

The First Liberty Institute alleged the Navy continued to try blocking the SEAL’s TBI treatment. According to the complaint “multiple high-ranking Naval officers in SEAL 26’s command began calling the treatment center and asking if it would deny treatment to someone who is unvaccinated.”

While the treatment center did not comply with the commanders calls to deny treatment, the SEAL’s lawyers said the effort “ran out the clock on SEAL 26’s request again: the treatment center had to give his spot to another patient because SEAL 26 had not been given approval to attend.”

“Plaintiff has now been denied the ability to travel to a TBI treatment program twice (both before and after the issuance of the injunction),” the complaint reads. “Even to receive the treatment out of his own pocket.

The complaint says another service member, identified as “Navy Diver 2” is also suffering the same adverse actions as he had prior to the injunction, namely that the service is continuing to confine his travel. The diver has been kept at a duty station for four months now, despite only traveling to that station to complete a four-week course. He is also required to receive special permission to leave the base for any reason, even to get groceries and gas for his car.

Navy SEAL 21, who was kicked out of his platoon and forced to turn in his gear before the issuance of the injunction, allegedly remains detached from his unit and unable to participate in training.

Navy SEAL 13, who was pulled from a four-month course prior to the injunction, also allegedly has been denied the chance to resume the course.

Navy SEAL 14 was scheduled to leave for Officer Candidate School (OCS) on Jan. 2, 2022. Since then he was allegedly told it was up to the SEAL Officer Community Manager to decide whether he could now go to OCS and he has yet to receive new orders despite the school running every three weeks.

Navy SEAL 22 was supposed to transfer from a training detachment to the platoon chief role on a SEAL Team in October, but that transfer allegedly still hasn’t been allowed a month after the court order. SEAL 22 has also allegedly been denied the chance to attend a training course.

The Navy’s vaccine order states training and changes of duty station can be stopped for vaccine refusers, but First Liberty Institute argues those provisions in the vaccine order don’t apply because their clients are actively seeking religious exemptions to the vaccine, which sets them apart from those who refuse the vaccine order. The plaintiff’s lawyers further argue that while the Navy’s vaccine order is enjoined, the Navy cannot apply provisions of the order to the plaintiff service members.

“It is reprehensible that the Navy would deny health care to a Navy SEAL suffering the effects of traumatic brain injury,” First Liberty Institute General Counsel Mike Berry said in a press statement. “Despite the Court’s clear order prohibiting this kind of vindictive abuse, the Navy continues to punish and harass these warriors. The Navy continues to deny our clients training and deployment opportunities and is assigning these soldiers menial tasks instead of allowing them to defend our country.  This religious discrimination must stop.”

While the First Liberty Institute supports the SEALs challenging the vaccine mandate, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) supports the military-wide vaccine mandates.

In granting the injunction last month, judge O’Connor said service members’ objections to the vaccine are “undisputedly sincere.”

In a statement to Fox News this week, MRFF President Michael Weinstein said, “Members of the military are required to get numerous other vaccines and the COVID vaccine should be absolutely no different.”

“MRFF has been contacted by over 700 American service members claiming a ‘religious objection’ to the COVID vaccine and requesting MRFF’s intervention and representation,” Weinstein added. “We DO consider every request on a case-by-case basis. We have yet to find one that is even remotely meritorious.”

Weinstein said MRFF has been contacted by over 700 service members seeking support for their religious objections to the COVID vaccine, but has not deemed any of those requests to be “even remotely meritorious.”

“The very first thing we ask them is if they objected to the other often numerous vaccines they were required by their chains of command to get. If their answer is ‘no’, we’re not buying that their sudden ‘religious objection’ to this COVID vaccine has anything to do with a ‘sincerely held religious belief’ and will most assuredly NOT take them on as a client,” Weinstein said. “Unless the 35 Navy SEALS involved in this lawsuit can show a track record of seeking ‘religious exemptions’ for ALL of the other many vaccines they were required to have, their requests for a religious accommodation for this one are ridiculously specious and should be flatly denied.”

Weinstein also told Fox News that service members not taking the vaccine should not simply receive an administrative separation but should be court-martialed and receive less than an Honorable discharge