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Army approves its first religious COVID vaccine waiver

U.S. Army Soldiers draw and prepare vaccines at the Atlanta Community Vaccination Center in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, March 26, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Robert P Wormley III)
March 11, 2022

The U.S. Army approved its first religious accommodation to its mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy this week.

In its latest round of vaccination statistics announced on Thursday, the Army revealed it had received 3,760 requests for religious accommodations to the vaccines among its active service component, of which it has rejected 536 and approved just one. The remaining 3,223 religious accommodation requests are still awaiting approval.

With this first approved waiver, the Army has become the third military branch to approve a religious accommodation to the COVID-19 vaccine for its active component. The U.S. Marine Corps was the first U.S. military branch to approve any religious exemption and, as of Thursday, has approved six such religious exemptions.

The U.S. Air Force was the second U.S. military branch to approve any religious exemptions and now leads on that front with 19 approved religious exemptions as of Tuesday. Those exemptions included 18 granted by the major commands and field commands and one that was either approved by the Department of the Air Force directly or on an appeal.

The U.S. Navy has technically approved a religious accommodation to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but that accommodation is only for a member of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). The accommodation is also conditional and would cease to exempt the service member from the vaccine mandate if they were ever called up to a more active military component.

Calling up the IRR to active service technically requires a president to make an emergency declaration, in line with 10 U.S. Code § 12302. President Donald Trump issued such a declaration in March 2020, known as Executive Order 13912. EO 13912 authorized the military to call on Selected Reserve and certain IRR members to assist in the military’s COVID-19 response.

In their latest COVID-19 vaccination statistics, the Army further announced it had received 689 requests for permanent medical exemptions to the vaccine policy, of which it had approved seven and rejected 657.

The Army has approved another 4,825 temporary exemptions to the vaccine policy. Part of that number consists of service members with pending requests for permanent exemptions.

The Army has documented another 2,791 refusals of the vaccine mandate and has issued 3,183 official reprimands.

On Feb. 2, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth issued an order for the service to proceed with separating vaccine refusers. More than a month later, the Army said it has not involuntarily separated any Soldiers on the sole basis of refusing the order to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

Other military branches have been quicker to separate their unvaccinated service members. As of Tuesday, the Air Force had separated 205 members. The Marine Corps has separated 1,038 of its members and the Navy has separated 469 of its members.