On Jan. 3, 2022, a group of Navy Seals declining to take the COVID-19 vaccine due to religious reasons, received protection in the form of a preliminary injunction from a federal court in the Northern District of Texas Fort Worth.1 2
The COVID vaccine mandate instituted by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) requires that all U.S. military personnel receive the COVID vaccine by Dec. 14, 2021.3 While religious exemptions are permitted, the Navy has failed to approve even a single one of the 3,247 requests for a religious exemption.4
Navy Seals Argue COVID Vaccine Mandate Violates Free Exercise of Religion Clause of U.S. Constitution and Religious Freedom Restoration Act
In response, 35 Navy Seals represented by the First Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit against President Joe Biden alleging that they faced disciplinary repercussions for filing a religious exemption, including being kept apart from vaccinated colleagues as well as dismissals.5 The Navy Seals Complaint argues that that the Navy violated the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) when no action was taken on their religious exemption requests.6
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor sided with the Navy Seals and ruled against the Biden administration’s COVID vaccine mandate. He issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Navy from punishing the Navy Seals who had filed religious exemption. The injunction barred the Navy from declaring the unvaccinated Navy Seals non-deployable or disqualified from Special Operations.7
The Court pointed out that not only did the Navy fail to grant a single exemption for COVID vaccines, but it has not approved any religious exemption for any vaccine at all over the past seven years.8 The judge stated that even if the religious exemptions were granted, the Navy said the Seals would be considered, “medically disqualified” and would be forever prevented from deployment and from receiving bonuses and incentive pay – even though Navy personnel with medical vaccine exemptions do not face the same severe consequences.
Some Navy Seals were informed that they would lose their Seal Tridents if they were granted a religious exemption to vaccination or even if they just applied for one.9
Court Applied Strict Scrutiny Analysis to Justify Injunction
The Court came to the same conclusion on both the RFRA and the First Amendment claims. Because the Navy treated medical exemptions different than religious exemptions, the court applied strict scrutiny analysis and found that the Navy did not have, “a compelling interest justifying the substantial burden on Plaintiff’s religious beliefs.”10
Once a substantial burden to their religious beliefs was established by Plaintiffs, the Defendants must then show that the burden furthers a compelling interest and that they are using the least restrictive means to further that interest. The Judge explained that it is not enough for the Defendants to show their policy furthers a broad compelling interest such as “national security”, but rather they must show a compelling interest in vaccinating the 35 individual Plaintiffs in this matter.
With a 99.4 percent vaccination rate, the Court concluded that the Defendants do not have a compelling interest in vaccinating the Plaintiffs in this case. The Court further stressed that the fact that unvaccinated Navy personnel with medical exemptions are still eligible for deployment belies the compelling nature of the vaccinations policy. Since the Plaintiff’s policy was deemed not to be compelling, the Court did not need to address whether it used the least restrictive means before issuing an injunction.11
The Court concluded that the Plaintiffs suffered irreparable harm from the vaccine mandate.
Plaintiffs have suffered the more serious injury of “infringement of their religious liberty rights under RFRA and the First Amendment . . . .” Pls.’ Br. 28, ECF No. 16. The crisis of conscience imposed by the mandate is itself an irreparable harm. See BST Holdings, 17 F.4th at 618; Sambrano v. United Airlines, 19 F.4th 839, 842 (5th Cir. 2021) (Ho, J., dissenting) (citing Sampson v. Murray, 415 U.S. 61, 92 n.68 (1974)). “The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Elrod, 427 U.S. at 373 (plurality opinion).12 (emphasis added)
“There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”
Finally, the Court found that that balance of hardships favors the Plaintiffs because their loss of liberty outweighs the Defendant’s interest in vaccinating the 35 Navy Seals and that it was not against the public interest to issue a preliminary injunction.
Judge O’Connor stated:
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. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.13
As of Dec. 29, 2021, over a month after the vaccine mandate deadline passed, more than 8,000 Navy service members, 5,328 active duty and 3,002 Ready Reserve, have not received COVID vaccines.14
There are several other lawsuits pending against the Biden administration, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and DoD that are attempting to block the COVID vaccine mandate.15
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Click here to view References:
1 Kime P. Judge Blocks Navy’s Discipline of SEALs for Refusing the COVID-19 Vaccine. Military.com Jan. 4, 2021.
2 Gryboski M. Judge sides with Navy SEALs seeking religious exemption to Biden admin. COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The Christian Post Jan. 4, 2021.
3 Garamone J. Service Members Must Be Vaccinated or Face the Consequences, DOD Official Says. Defense.gov Dec 21, 2021.
4 Bostock B. Federal judge blocks Pentagon from punishing Navy SEALs who refused COVID-19 vaccines on religious grounds. Business Insider Jan. 4, 2021.
6 Sneed T. Judge blocks Navy vaccine policy for legal challengers citing religious objections. CNN Jan. 3, 2021.
8 Kime P. Judge Blocks Navy’s Discipline of SEALs for Refusing the COVID-19 Vaccine. Military.com Jan. 4, 2021.
9 U.S. Navy Seals v. Joseph Biden, Jr. et al. Case 4:21-cv-01236-0 Document 66 Jan. 3, 2021.
13 Sneed T. Judge blocks Navy vaccine policy for legal challengers citing religious objections. CNN Jan. 3, 2021.
14 Mongillo H. More Than 8,000 Navy Personnel Remain Unvaccinated Against COVID-19 as Reserve Deadline Passes. USNI News Dec. 29, 2021.
15 Kime P. Judge Blocks Navy’s Discipline of SEALs for Refusing the COVID-19 Vaccine. Military.com Jan. 4, 2021.