Military members still suffer from COVID-era mandates and need relief, attorneys warn

Federal judges presiding over the military vaccine mandate cases agreed.with plaintiffs.

Published: May 29, 2023 11:05pm

(The Center Square) -

The Memorial Day holiday is a bittersweet time for those who say they are still suffering from Biden administration policies that forced them to choose between their sincerely held religious beliefs and serving their country, attorneys representing them in lawsuits over COVID-19 vaccine mandates told The Center Square.

Steve Crampton, general counsel with the Thomas More Society, attended his son’s swearing in ceremony to the Air Force after completing basic training. The irony of the experience wasn’t lost on him, he said.

On the one hand, he was proud of his son’s and others’ accomplishments and commitment to serve their country. They all took an oath to defend and protect the U.S. Constitution from threats both foreign and domestic. On the other hand, he said, the same institution has “violated the constitutional rights of its service members and won’t even acknowledge it’s done so.”

“The hypocrisy of those leading the military and the continued discrimination against those with deeply held religious beliefs is that people who want to serve their country are being railroaded out of the services,” he told The Center Square.

Memorial Day is a time to “celebrate our freedoms and honor those who’ve sacrificed for those freedoms with their lives,” he said, “but the very institutions we’re celebrating are running roughshod over those freedoms.”

The Thomas More Society sued on behalf of Air Force personnel in a case in Georgia and on behalf of Coast Guard personnel in a case in Texas. TMS and others sued after their clients filed religious accommodation requests (RARs) as exemptions to the vaccine mandates, requests that were rejected by all military branches. Those who filed RARs said they refused to take an experimental drug that was produced using aborted fetal cells because it violated their sincerely held religious beliefs. The lawsuits alleged blanket RAR rejections violated the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Federal judges presiding over the military vaccine mandate cases agreed. As did the U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General. The IG report detailed abuses noting, “the volume and rate at which decisions were made to deny requests is concerning.”

Coast Guard plaintiffs are still waiting for a ruling on their case with a retired three-star vice admiral urging action.

The lawsuits stem from two mandates: a Defense Department COVID-19 vaccine mandate for personnel in all four branches of the U.S. military and a Biden administration federal employee vaccine mandate impacting the Coast Guard. Those who didn’t comply faced demotion, retaliation and eventual discharge. Ultimately, district and appellate judges ruled against the mandates in lawsuits across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal employee vaccine mandate; Congress forced the DOD to rescind its mandate.

In a class action lawsuit filed in Ohio that went to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the appellate judges refuted every argument the federal government made, effectively ending any chance for an appeal. They unanimously ruled the Air Force’s blanket denial of nearly 10,000 RARs violated the RFRA.

In Florida, when U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday granted class status to Marines, he said “the record reveals the substantial likelihood of a systemic failure by the Marine Corps to discharge the obligations established by RFRA.”

In this case, Marines had been charged additional monthly rent for noncompliance, given two days’ notice to be discharged and ordered to leave their military housing, which he said “suggests retribution and retaliation.”

In Georgia, U.S. Judge Tilman Self, III, said the chain of command’s reasoning for rejecting a plaintiff’s RAR, was, “Your religious beliefs are sincere, it’s just not compatible with military service.” In this case, a plaintiff was given less than a week to agree to take the vaccine or submit a retirement request, after her RAR rejection appeal was denied.

In Liberty Counsel’s Navy SEAL case, it filed a declaration “revealing shocking evidence of the abuse, intimidation and retaliation military members are facing over the Biden shot mandate,” including actions it argued were “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In a separate situation, after a former Marine’s RAR was denied, he was discharged and lost his last paycheck. Then, the USMC charged him $17,878.23, the remaining balance of a bonus he was given for reenlisting, which he still has to pay off.

Last year, over 60,000 National Guard and Reserve soldiers were told they’d lose pay, benefits and “adverse administrative actions, including flags, bars to service, and official reprimands,” the U.S. Army announced if they didn’t comply with the mandate.

Even after the mandate was rescinded, all four military branches continued to deny RARs, according to reports filed in Liberty Counsel’s case.

Still, others are being denied promotions and face ongoing retaliation, Crampton said. “We have great respect for our military and would much rather be defending those who risk their lives for our national security than suing them,” he told The Center Square.

After the DOD mandate was rescinded and Liberty Counsel’s case was dismissed, its founder and chairman, Mat Staver, told The Center Square they were urging Congress to provide relief: reinstate those who were discharged, restore their personnel records, and issue back pay among other remedies.

"Memorial Day is a good reminder of the sacrifice these men and women and their families have made," Staver said. "How they've been treated by the Biden administration is shameful and appalling. And as hard as they've fought for us, we will continue to fight for them."

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