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Pentagon potentially broke federal law handling religious vaccine waivers, IG memo says

Tech. Sgt. Joseph Anthony holds a COVID-19 vaccine vial at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania, Feb. 4, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joshua J. Seybert)
September 13, 2022

A June 2 memo from the Department of Defense’s Inspector General reportedly warned the military that its processes for evaluating COVID-19 vaccine exemption requests are in “potential noncompliance” with federal religious freedom laws.

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Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell warned Secretary of Defense Lloyd in the memo that the military is in “potential noncompliance” with the established standards for reviewing and processing religious accommodations to the COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The contents of this June 2 were first published on Tuesday by TerminalCWO, a popular social media handle that shares military whistleblower claims and leaks.

O’Donnell’s memo states its purpose is to inform Austin “of potential noncompliance with standards for reviewing and documenting the denial of religious accommodation requests of Service members identified through complaints submitted to my office.”

“The Department of Defense (DoD) Hotline received dozens of complaints regarding denied religious accommodation requests from Service members,” the memo continues. “We found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies. The denial memorandums we reviewed generally did not reflect an individualized analysis, demonstrating that the Senior Military Official considered the full range of facts and circumstances relevant to the particular religious accommodation request.”

O’Donnell’s memo then lists the example of an Air Force general who denied an Airman’s religious exemption request with the brief statement: “I disapprove your request for exemption from vaccinations under the provisions of AFI 48-110, paragraph 26.b.3.”

O’Donnell said a review of the number of religious exemption requests that were appealed found that appeal authorities in the various military service branches process an average of 50 denials per day over a 90-day period.

“Assuming a 10-hour work day with no breaks or attention to other matters, the average review period was about 12 minutes for each package,” O’Donnell’s memo reads. “Such a review period seems insufficient to process each request in an individualized manner and still perform the duties required of their position.”

Fox News, which also obtained a copy of the June 2 DoD IG memo, reported some of the appeals were at least 100 pages long and would have been impossible to process in the average amount of time appeal authorities spent reviewing such appeals.

O’Donnell went on to say, “We bring this to your attention for any action you deem appropriate to ensure that published guidance, including DoD Instruction 1300.17, ‘Religious Liberty in the Military Services,’ are followed when acting on requests for religious exemption from coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) vaccination requirements.”

In response to a request for comment from American Military News, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office said the office “does not provide comment or publicly release information pertaining to ongoing oversight work.”

The June 2 memo comes as the military has faced a series of legal challenges over the military vaccine mandates. While the various military branches have granted a few religious accommodations to the vaccine mandates, the large majority of service members requesting such accommodations are denied.

As of last week, the U.S. Marine Corps reported it had received 3,736 religious vaccine accommodation requests and had granted 14 (about 0.37 percent of all requests).

As of last week, the U.S. Army had received 8,384 religious vaccine accommodation requests and had granted 32 (about .38 percent).

As of the U.S. Navy’s most recent numbers from August, the service has received 4,251 requests for religious accommodations to the vaccine mandate, including from 876 members of the Navy’s Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). It has approved 47 of those requests (about 1.1 percent).

It is not clear exactly how many religious accommodations the U.S. Air Force has granted for the vaccine mandate, because it lists such accommodations among a broader category of “administrative” exemptions. The Air Force had announced its first religious accommodations in February, but the service has faced allegations of only granting such accommodations to members already in the process of separating.