Our nation’s military is charged with defending the Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees to all American citizens. When one of these citizens is also an Air Force officer, these safeguards still apply.
So ruled on February 15 Judge Tilman E. Self, III, United States District Judge in Georgia, while granting a preliminary injunction in favor of an unnamed female Air Force officer who s is opposed, for religious reasons, to receiving the COVID-19 vaccines required by the Department of Defense.
The officer, a 25-year-old veteran with an unblemished military record, has been ordered – along with the rest of the nation’s armed forces – to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 18, 2021, or seek and receive an exemption to do it. She formally requested an exemption on religious grounds because of the vaccines’ connection to the use of aborted fetal tissue cell lines used in their testing or production.
One more fact in her favor: She already had COVID-19 in 2020, and two antibody tests since then have shown she still has natural immunity to the disease.
However, his request was denied along with every other Air Force member who requested a religious exemption until recently when a few requests were granted. But not his. She had the option of retiring or being forced to leave with her career in tatters. The financial loss alone would have been more than $1 million in lost wages and benefits.
However, more than three thousand Air Force members received medical or administrative exemptions from the vaccination order, a fact that played a significant role in Judge Self’s decision that the warrant was not valid. not neutral towards religion.
“Plaintiff has clearly established the first element necessary to obtain a preliminary injunction because ‘any favorable treatment’ for service members exempted for a secular reason versus those seeking an exemption for religious reasons” goes against neutrality ‘” the judge wrote.
The judge also did not accept the Air Force’s argument that the officer’s unvaccinated status would threaten military readiness.
“It seems illogical to think, let alone argue, that the plaintiff’s religion-based refusal to take a COVID-19 vaccine would ‘seriously’ impede military function when the Air Force has at least 3 300 other service members still serving who are just as unvaccinated as her,” Judge Self said.
Although the injunction is only a preliminary injunction while the litigation progresses, the judge’s decision, along with another preliminary injunction recently granted in favor of a number of Navy SEALs and temporary restraining orders issued in a third case indicates a growing legal impetus for exemption requests.
Judge Self reminded the Air Force of the irony of its stance on religious freedom.
“Given the Nation’s essential commitment to religious freedom[,]The plaintiff’s prejudice – a constitutional infringement involving her right to freely exercise her religion – is not a simple trivial grievance. [citation omitted]. And what real interest can our military leaders have in advancing a demand that violates the very document they are sworn to uphold and defend? The Court is unquestionably satisfied that the Air Force will remain healthy enough to carry out its critical mission of national defense even if the plaintiff remains unvaccinated and not forced into retirement.
“All Americans, especially the Court, want our country to maintain a military force strong enough to utterly destroy any enemy that dares challenge it. However, we also want a military force strong enough to respect and protect the constitutional and statutory religious rights of its military. This decision ensures that our armed forces continue to accomplish both.
The Air Force officer in this case is represented by attorneys from the Thomas More Society, which issued a Press release announcing the judge’s decision.
“This is a great victory for religious liberty,” said Stephen Crampton, senior counsel for the Thomas More Society. “The Air Force had granted over 1,500 medical exemptions at the time we filed this complaint, but not a single religious exemption — not one. After our filing, he suddenly decided to start granting or pretending to grant religious exemptions, but only a handful. It is shameful how the military in general has disrespected basic First Amendment rights. We are grateful that the court restored the free exercise rights of this courageous officer and hope that his victory will help protect the rights of conscientious objectors everywhere.
The case is Air Force Officer v. Austin.
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