Air Force avoids court-martial, pursues separation board over officer's religious objection to vax

"It'd be a significant embarrassment and a huge blow to the Air Force to have a judge rule" that the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is "not a lawful order," said attorney Davis Younts.

Updated: June 28, 2022 - 3:23pm

An Air Force officer is no longer facing a court-martial over his religious objection to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, but will likely be subject to an administrative separation board, with the possibility of losing his job.

Air Force Master Sergeant Vincent White, who is a Christian, submitted a religious accommodation request (RAR) for an exemption from the military COVID vaccine mandate. After first his request and then his appeal were denied and he still refused to get the vaccine, he was served an "Article 15" non-judicial punishment in April, which is an allegation of violation of a lawful order and the most severe military punishment below a court-martial. If an airman accepts the Article 15 punishment, then the Air Force could immediately take away his rank or pay, or assign him extra duty.

However, an airman can instead decline to accept the punishment and request a trial by court-martial instead, which is what White did. The Air Force then had to decide whether to go to trial or rescind the Article 15 punishment.

The Air Force has now rescinded the Article 15 punishment, which means that a court-martial is no longer an option, said White's attorney, R. Davis Younts. However, the service intends to send White's case to an administrative separation board, which could recommend he be separated from the Air Force.

The difference between a trial by court-martial and an administrative separation board is that the former would require a military judge to rule on the lawfulness of the COVID vaccine order, Younts told Just the News.

"It'd be a significant embarrassment and a huge blow to the Air Force to have a judge rule it an unlawful order or have a jury find ... that it's not a lawful order," he said.

If the vaccine order was found to be unlawful through a court-martial trial, then it "would set a precedent that other military judges would be likely to follow" on the mandate, although it's not binding, Younts explained.

In pursuing an administrative separation board hearing, the Air Force will have to accuse White of misconduct. Since a board finding that White did not commit misconduct would be less significant than if a court-martial did, the Air Force is acting to limit its downside risk, Younts believes.

Younts said in a statement: "MSgt White stood up to an unlawful order, demanded the right to a trial, and the Air Force backed down. They will withdraw the Article 15 punishment and drop the allegation of violation of a lawful order.

"MSgt White was one of many Airmen that received Article 15 punishment for his stand against the mandate to take an experimental medical treatment. Because he was willing to demand trial, the Air Force backed down. We hope that MSgt White's willingness to take this brave stand will force the Air Force to back down in other cases. MSgt White remains in a fight to save his career because the Air Force still intends to send his case to an Administrative Separation Board."

Hurlburt Field Air Force Base, where White is stationed, responded on Tuesday to a request for comment, saying that while they couldn't comment on individual cases, they could explain the process.

"Regarding nonjudicial punishment (NJP) specifically, if a member demands trial by court-martial, the commander may not impose NJP for the offense(s) listed on the offer of NJP; however, the commander is not required to prefer court-martial charges, and no mandate exists to refer a case to trial by court-martial," according to a statement sent by a spokesperson for the base.

"Administrative or disciplinary actions—to include NJP—are used to address service members who have who have [sic] refused to obey a lawful order to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and do not have a pending separation or retirement, or medical, religious or administrative exemption. Refusal to comply with the vaccination mandate without an exemption will result in the member being subject to initiation of administrative discharge proceedings. Service characterization will be governed by the applicable Department of the Air Force Instructions."

Last month, a Navy administrative separation board voted unanimously to retain an officer who refused to comply with the military vaccine mandate. That board found that the officer's failure to follow the COVID vaccine order did not count as misconduct and that he should remain in the Navy. Younts told Just the News at the time that the board members weren't convinced that the vaccine order was lawful.

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