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Federal judge blocks Pentagon from punishing Navy sailors who decline COVID-19 vaccine

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Washington — A federal judge in Texas blocked the Department of Defense on Monday from punishing 35 members of the Navy who refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in compliance with the service's vaccine mandate due to religious objections.

The group of Christian Navy personnel, including SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant Craft crewmen, divers and an explosive ordnance disposal technician, brought their case against President Biden and the Defense Department in November and argued the Navy's vaccine mandate violates the First Amendment and federal law. 

The service members asked the court to stop the Defense Department from enforcing the policy, to which they are seeking religious accommodations, against them and prohibit the Navy from taking "adverse action" against them for not getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

In a 26-page order granting the Naval Special Warfare Command members relief, U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor called the Navy's religious accommodations process for its vaccination policy "theater" and said it "rubber stamps each denial" for a religious exemption.

"The Navy service members in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect," O'Connor, appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote in his order. "The COVID-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution."

The Defense Department issued a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for service members in August, and the Department of the Navy required all active-duty Navy personnel to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before November 28 or face discipline. 

The Navy members who filed suit against the Pentagon sought religious accommodations to the vaccine requirement, citing their religious beliefs for their objections to receiving COVID-19 shots. But the Navy has denied most of their requests, many of which have been appealed, according to court filings. 

O'Connor wrote in his orders that the Navy service members are likely to succeed in pursuing their claims that the vaccine mandate is unconstitutional and in violation of federal law.

"The plaintiffs' loss of religious liberties outweighs any forthcoming harm to the Navy," he wrote. "Even the direst circumstances cannot justify the loss of constitutional rights."

O'Connor called the Navy's religious accommodation process an "exercise in futility" and said the service members "need not wait for the Navy to rubber stamp a constitutional violation before seeking relief in court."

Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, which is representing the Navy personnel, praised the district court's order and called punishment by the service for seeking a religious accommodation from the vaccine mandate "purely vindictive and punitive." 

"Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America's values," he said in a statement.

The Defense Department in December began disciplinary actions and discharges against members who have declined to comply with the vaccine mandate, with up to 20,000 unvaccinated service members facing removal. In the Navy, more than 98% have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, though 5,328 active-duty members were unvaccinated as of December 29, according to the service.

More than 2,800 active-duty Navy personnel have requested religious accommodations, though none have been approved. 

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