Judge blocks Air Force enforcement of COVID vax mandate against religious objector

"'Your religious beliefs are sincere, it's just not compatible with military service,'" the judge quoted the Air Force officer's chain of command.
Judge's gavel

A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the Air Force to stop its enforcement of the military COVID-19 vaccine mandate against an officer whose religious accommodation request was denied.

This is the first preliminary injunction granted against the Air Force's vaccine mandate.

The Thomas More Society filed the lawsuit, Air Force Officer v. Austin, et al., early last month on behalf of an Air Force officer in the Reserves who has served in the military for over 25 years. The officer declined to take the COVID vaccine because it is associated with aborted fetal cells.

Despite the officer having COVID antibodies, working remotely, wearing a mask, social distancing, and getting tested periodically, the Air Force rejected her appeal of their denial of her religious accommodation request.

Following the denied appeal, the Air Force gave the officer three options: Get vaccinated, retire, or "refuse the vaccine in writing." If the officer refused the vaccine, she would be involuntarily reassigned "to the Individual Ready Reserve without pay, benefits, or regular responsibilities," according to the decision written by Judge Tilman Self of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.

"'Your religious beliefs are sincere, it's just not compatible with military service,'" the judge quoted the officer's chain of command. "That's about as blunt as it gets," Self wrote, adding in a footnote: "This is how Plaintiff's chain of command paraphrased why he thought she was denied a religious exemption from a COVID-19 vaccine. True, he undoubtedly spoke for himself, but when considering the Air Force's abysmal record regarding religious accommodations requests, it turns out he was dead on target."

The lawsuit was filed against the secretary of defense, the secretary of the Air Force, and the surgeon general of the Air Force. In his decision, Self wrote that the officer is likely to prevail on her claims that the Air Force violated both the First Amendment of the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In his ruling, the judge also relied on a decision by U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor last month that granted a preliminary injunction against the Navy's vaccine mandate for plaintiffs seeking religious exemptions.

"Although the Air Force claims to provide a religious accommodation process, it proved to be nothing more than a quixotic quest for Plaintiff because it was 'by all accounts ... theater,'" wrote Self, quoting O'Connor.

"Despite thousands of requests for religious exemption, the Air Force hadn't granted a single one of them when Plaintiff filed her Complaint," Self continued.

Noting that he is a former Army artillery officer, the judge acknowledged that "judges don't make good generals." But, by the same token, "generals don't make good judges —especially when it comes to nuanced constitutional issues," he argued. "It's that simple. Whether Defendants' COVID-19 vaccination requirement can withstand strict scrutiny doesn't require 'military expertise or discretion.'"

"This is a great victory for religious freedom," declared Stephen Crampton, senior counsel with Thomas More Society.

"The Air Force had granted over 1,500 medical exemptions by the time we filed this lawsuit, but not a single religious exemption — not one," he said. "After we filed, it suddenly decided to start granting or claiming to grant religious exemptions, albeit only a handful. It is disgraceful how the military in general has disrespected fundamental First Amendment rights. We are grateful that the court has restored the Free Exercise rights of this courageous officer and are hopeful that her victory will help to protect the rights of conscientious objectors everywhere."