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Coast Guardsmen denied religious exemptions from vax mandate despite stellar records sue DOD, DHS

The plaintiffs received awards and approval from commanders while remaining unvaccinated.

Published: September 19, 2022 6:23pm

Updated: September 20, 2022 11:02am

Three Coast Guard officers have filed a class action lawsuit against the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security after they were denied religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The Coast Guard officers received awards and approval from commanders while remaining unvaccinated. They are seeking both a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the dismissal of 1,200-plus unvaccinated members.

The lawsuit, Stone et al. v. Mayorkas et al., was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas by the Thomas More Society on behalf of the Coast Guardsmen.

The plaintiffs include Lieutenant Junior Grade Alaric Stone, who was the top graduate in the Class of 2020 at the Coast Guard Academy; Non-Commissioned Officer Eric Jackson, who has been in the Coast Guard for 18 years and received an award this year for his exemplary service; and Lieutenant Junior Grade Michael Marcenelle, who received the Coast Guard Achievement Medal for his superior performance the past three years on the same day he was reprimanded for his religious accommodation request (RAR) for an exemption from the vaccine mandate.

Stone's supervising officer called him an "Exemplary Officer [who] embodies critical leadership skills" while praising his "commitment to core values," and gave the "highest recommendation" for him in future at-sea tours despite his RAR already being denied, according to the Thomas More Society.

Jackson's commander gave an official statement that his RAR posed "no hindrance to operations" or "mission readiness."

"These exemplary Coast Guard officers ... are being rewarded for their documented stellar service by dismissal," Thomas More Society Senior Counsel Stephen Crampton said in a statement. "That is both immoral and illegal.

"This lawsuit seeks to stop the government's religious discrimination against these, and all members of the Coast Guard, and to prevent their discharge from the military, which has been initiated solely because they are as loyal to their faith as they have been to this nation."

According to the lawsuit, the only RARs that have been approved were for Guardsmen who were already in the separation process or were retiring.

The lawsuit also alleges that the denials were blanket, which is contrary to the individualized assessments required by law.

In the filing, the Thomas More Society cites a Defense Department inspector general's report that "found a trend of generalized assessments" with regard to the denied religious exemptions. The government has "taken no action to remedy the unlawful activity the Inspector General found," according to the lawsuit, despite the report and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin forwarding it to military branch leaders on Sept. 2.

"The Coast Guard has also ignored the latest Centers for Disease Control prevention guidelines, which recommend no longer differentiating based on a person's vaccination status," Crampton added. "At the same time it is forcing these brave and principled service members out, the Coast Guard admits it faces an urgent shortfall in personnel and recruiting. The actions of both the government and the Coast Guard in this situation are ridiculous as well as illogical."

The lawsuit comes as President Joe Biden said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes" that "the pandemic is over."

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley wrote an article on Monday explaining how Biden's statement "is likely to be cited in a variety of briefs in cases challenging emergency powers and policies used by the Administration."

Biden's declaration will likely have an effect on the lawsuit against the vaccine mandate for federal workers, which is to be heard before the entire Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Turley added.

Biden's statement "will likely be cited in any balancing of religious rights against military discipline and order" in cases involving religious exemptions to the military vaccine mandate, Turley told Just the News on Monday.

The Coast Guard lawsuit follows the service's efforts to discharge members refusing the vaccine without allowing them to appear before administrative separation boards to defend their cases.

Last month, the Coast Guard Academy forced unvaccinated cadets whose RARs were denied off campus and sent them home while keeping them enrolled. The cadets are unable to attend classes or leave the academy for work elsewhere, and were not given any further details regarding their future in the service.

The Department of Defense referred requests for comment regarding the lawsuit to the Justice Department.

The DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

The Coast Guard told Just the News on Tuesday that it "does not comment on pending litigation."

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