Court expands Navy SEAL COVID vaccine lawsuit to include all Navy service members

"Exactly zero requests have been granted," Judge O'Connor noted.

Updated: March 29, 2022 - 4:31pm

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The U.S. Department of Defense will no longer be able to punish any Navy service member who has religious objections to the department's COVID-19 vaccine mandate following a ruling Monday in a Texas district court.

The Northern District of Texas District Court expanded its decision from January into a class action lawsuit for all Navy service members, not just the Navy SEALs who originally brought the case forward. The ruling means that the Department of Defense is unable to punish any Navy service members who requested a religious accommodation to the vaccine mandate.

"Our clients are boldly leading the fight against the vaccine mandate, but no service member should face discipline or punishment for following their faith," said First Liberty Institute's Director of Military Affairs Mike Berry in a press release. His organization led the lawsuit on behalf of the SEALs.

"The purge of religious servicemembers is not just devastating to morale but it is bringing about about a measurable reduction in readiness that harms America’s national security. It’s time for our military to honor its constitutional obligations and grant religious accommodations for service members with sincere religious objections to the vaccine," Berry said.

As of last week, the Navy has yet to fully approve a single religious accommodation request out of the more than 4,000 filed.

The judge called the Navy's approval process "theater" in his ruling, First Liberty noted.

"Here, the potential class members have suffered the 'same injury,' arising from violations of their constitutional rights. Each has submitted a religious accommodation request, and each has had his request denied, delayed, or dismissed on appeal," Judge Reed O'Connor said in his ruling.

"Exactly zero requests have been granted," O'Connor, a George W. Bush appointee, noted. "And while Defendants encourage this Court to disregard the data, it is hard to imagine a more consistent display of discrimination. As previously explained in this Court’s preliminary injunction order, Plaintiffs have suffered the serious injury of infringement of their religious liberty rights under RFRA and the First Amendment."

The Northern District of Texas District Court issued a preliminary injunction in January determining that the Pentagon could not punish SEALs who do not follow the COVID mandate. 

O'Connor had previously ruled that the Department of Defense could not decide against deploying SEALs based on COVID vaccination status.

The most recent district court decision follows a Supreme Court ruling last week that blocked a lower court's order preventing the Defense Department from determining whether to deploy SEALs based on vaccination status.