After their requests for religion-based exemptions to a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for service members were denied by the U.S. Air Force Academy, more than a dozen of the school’s cadets remain in limbo and face “administrative separation,” an action that effectively “fires” them from the military, adds a letter of reprimand to their files, and — for some — could mean they’re on the hook to repay almost $200,000 in government scholarship money.
Four of those cadets — “firsties,” or seniors — won’t be joining their classmates for the May 25 graduation ceremony at the academy’s campus north of Colorado Springs, the lawyer representing three of them said Friday. Whether they receive their AFA degrees at all is a question that most likely will be decided in the courts, long after the caps have settled.
“I believe that if somebody changed their mind (about receiving the vaccine), they could wind up being commissioned, graduating late, and not being separated from the Air Force … however they’ve got a limited amount of time to make that decision, and we’re running out of time,” said Mike Rose, the South Carolina attorney and 1969 AFA graduate representing three of the senior cadets.
The Air Force Academy requires all cadets to have received a full course of the two-dose vaccine by Aug. 2. There’s a required eight-week gap between each shot. That, Rose said, means they’re technically already “out of time.”
For those who haven’t yet received their initial poke, the options now are limited, said the academy, which urged cadets to “obey the lawful order and receive the vaccine.”
“Another option is they can elect to voluntarily resign. Otherwise, they will face consequences for disobeying a lawful order,” said Director of Public Affairs Lt. Col. Brian Maguire, responding to questions from The Gazette.
“If cadets choose to remain unvaccinated, they could be dismissed from the Academy,” he said. Consequences, including scholarship reimbursement, are a “decision (that) will be made after a disenrollment decision has been made.”
Of the 13 AFA cadets who sought waivers and have not received the COVID-19 vaccination, he said four are seniors, two are juniors, one is a sophomore and six are freshmen. All applied for a religious exemption, which was denied. Their appeals also were denied.
“As each religious exemption is handled on a case-by-case basis, I can’t speculate as to what would result in an approval for a religious exemption,” Maguire said. “We continue to ensure the religious accommodation waiver process adheres to Department of Defense and Department of the Air Force guidance and respects the religious rights of each cadet.”
In August of last year, the Pentagon made vaccines mandatory for all service members, including cadets and those in ROTC programs. It also said waivers would be granted for those with a good reason, medical or faith. So far, few religion-based exemptions have been approved, throughout all branches of the military.
In January, the Air Force approved its first vaccine exemptions on religious grounds, granting nine waivers.
Vaccinations are par for the course in the military and at the Air Force Academy, where, in addition to the basic inoculations, cadets are required to get an annual flu shot.
Those few who’ve chosen not to get the COVID-19 vaccine say it’s the nature of the serum’s creation that sits ill with their faith.
“As a chaplain, I defend people’s religious freedom,” said former Colorado state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, who graduated from the academy in 1991 and now leads an evangelical ministry in the Springs. “These are evangelical Christian cadets, who are pro-life, and they object to the fact that the vaccines were tested on aborted fetal stem cell lines. Because of their objection to abortion, their conscience will not let them … inject this particular drug into their own bodies.
“That’s why they won’t take the vaccine,” he said. “It’s not because they hate all vaccines.”
Klingenschmitt said the “retaliation” against cadets who’ve sought religious waivers runs counter to a promise AFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark made, soon after the policy went into effect in September 2021, at an academy reunion gathering, before a crowd of hundreds.
“I took a public microphone and said, ‘Will you advocate for religious cadets who refuse the vaccine? He said ‘Absolutely, chaplain,'” Klingenschmitt said. “In December, he did the opposite.”
Attorney Mike Rose said all of his clients submitted exemption requests that first were approved by the AFA chaplain.
“That’s another question: Why aren’t the chaplains, the religious leaders making that decision, rather than the superintendent?” Rose said.
The academy said that the consequences of cadets’ decisions to eschew the vaccine isn’t punishment for their beliefs. It’s the outcome of defying an order.
Lawsuits, including a class-action suit on behalf of Navy SEALs led by the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, are ongoing nation- and military-wide. A number of lawmakers also have taken up the fight, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas; and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who has introduced a bill that would reinstate any service member dismissed because of vaccine status.
“Just spoke with a firstie’s grandfather, who said ‘If my grandson will not be allowed to graduate but is still in Air Force limbo until 2 August, sadly he must cancel his wedding on 11 June because cadets may not be married until they graduate,'” Klingenschmitt said. “Can you imagine how heartbroken his bride is?”
A rally is planned for Saturday morning at 9 a.m. at the South Gate of the Air Force Academy.
“We will have people waving signs and protesting to defend religious freedom,” Klingenschmitt said. “There’s only one person who can change his mind right now, and that is the superintendent, three-star Gen. Richard Clark. Our protest is to plea with him personally, ‘Sir, please keep your oath. Please let the cadets graduate. Defend their religious freedom.'”
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