A federal judge ruled that the Department of Defense could not punish a group of Navy SEALs and other special forces members who refused COVID-19 vaccines on religious grounds.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Navy and Defense Department from enforcing the mandate after a group of 35 special forces servicemembers filed a lawsuit.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had previously announced that COVID vaccination would be mandatory for U.S. military personnel this past in August.
Reed — a Bush appointee — pointed out that the Navy has not granted a single religious exemption to the vaccine mandate.
“The Navy servicemembers in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms,” the judge wrote in a 26-page decision.
“There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”
The plaintiffs were represented by First Liberty Institute, a legal organization dedicated to defending U.S. religious liberties, praised the ruling.
“Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values,” said the institute’s General Counsel Mike Berry in a written statement.
“Punishing SEALs for simply asking for a religious accommodation is purely vindictive and punitive. We’re pleased that the court has acted to protect our brave warriors before more damage is done to our national security.”
The plaintiffs were set to face a wide range of military discipline actions over refusing the vaccine.
In September, an unclassified Navy memo detailed the branch’s plans for punishing vaccine resisters. According to the document, a new “central authority” called the COVID Consolidated Disposition Authority (CCDA) will be the arbiter of punishing unvaccinated military personnel.
The document states that the CCDA will “serve as the central authority for adjudication and will have at his or her disposal the full range of administrative and disciplinary actions.” Navy vaccine resisters were set to be processed as “Misconduct, Moral or Professional Dereliction” cases, which is the same category used for sex offenders and drug users.
The Department of Defense has yet to comment on the ruling. Defense Secretary Austin — who has received a two-dose mRNA vaccine and a booster — announced he had tested positive for the virus on Monday.