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Navy stops kicking out 4,000+ sailors over COVID vaccines for now

A U.S. Navy Sailor receives the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Luke Cunningham)
March 31, 2022

United States Navy sailors who rejected the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds are no longer being separated from the service after a federal judge granted class-action certification on Monday to the 26 Navy SEALs who sued the Defense Department over the vaccine mandate.  

Judge Reed O’Connor granted the class action on Monday to stop the Navy from separating troops with pending religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to USNI News. Additionally, the judge granted a preliminary injunction, blocking the service’s ability to separate sailors who were previously denied religious exemptions.  

The move protects more than 4,000 sailors who have submitted religious exemption requests.

“Without relief, each servicemember faces the threat of discharge and the consequences that accompany it,” O’Connor wrote. “Even though their personal circumstances may factually differ in small ways, the threat is the same – get the jab or lose your job.”

The judge’s action also allows sailors to withdraw or amend requests to voluntarily resign or transfer. It is unclear if the more than 650 sailors who have already been separated will be reinstated if a religious exemption request was involved.  

Despite receiving thousands of religious exemption requests, the Navy has not approved a single waiver. The service has approved nine religious exemptions for troops in the Individual Ready Reserve, but said they are required to take the vaccine if they are called up to reserves or active duty.

In December, First Liberty Institute filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of U.S. Navy SEALs and other Naval Special Warfare personnel against President Joe Biden’s administration and the Department of Defense. The lawsuit alleges the U.S. government is infringing on troops’ First Amendment right to be free from governmental religious persecution by refusing to grant religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The filing represents 26 Navy SEALs, multiple Special Warfare Combatant Craft Crewmen (SWCC) and Navy Divers, and an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician, all of whom are members of various denominations of Christianity and who reject the COVID-19 vaccine mandate due to “their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Mike Berry, director of military affairs and senior counsel at First Liberty, accused the Navy of acting as though “it’s above the law,” suggesting that the Navy may interpret the court’s decision in a way that allows the service to reassign troops based on vaccine status.  

“And thus far, in this litigation and with the vaccine mandate, the Navy has continued to act as if it’s above the law,” Berry said. “So that wouldn’t surprise me. But at the end of the day, they need to follow, they need to abide by the rulings of the court.”

The Navy said they would take vaccination status into consideration with assignments.

“Navy service members who are not vaccinated, regardless of exemption status, may be temporarily or permanently reassigned based on mission requirements [in accordance with] previous guidance,” the Navy said in a memo.