Lawmakers in Congress side with Navy SEALS facing discharge over COVID vaccine mandate

Forty-seven members in both chambers of Congress filed an amicus brief in favor of the SEALS.

Updated: December 20, 2021 - 11:37pm

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Dozens of lawmakers announced their support for a group of Navy SEALs who sued the Biden administration over a vaccine mandate that is forcing them out of the armed services.

Forty-seven members in both chambers of Congress filed an amicus brief in favor of the SEALS, who argue their applications for religious exemptions from the mandate were unfairly denied.

“No right is more precious than the right to religious liberty,” the lawmakers said. “That is why the very first clause of the very First Amendment explicitly states that ‘Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise’ of religion. This amendment, case law, and Congress’s decision to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (‘RFRA’) all testify to the fact that, without entrenched, generally applicable, and judicially enforceable protections for religious liberty, lawmakers and government bureaucrats are susceptible to override sincere religious beliefs in favor of what they perceive to be the greater good.”

With President Joe Biden’s support, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced in August that all U.S. service members must take the COVID vaccine.

“...this appears to be an attempted ideological purge,” said Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, the legal group representing the plaintiffs. “After all these elite warriors have done to defend our freedoms, the Navy is now threatening their careers, families, and finances.”

The mandate came after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the Pfizer vaccine full approval.

That mandate, though, leaves many U.S. troops choosing between the vaccine and their career in the military. Hundreds of Navy SEALs have reportedly been told this year they will not be deployed if they don't receive the vaccine. On top of that, they will no longer be able to serve as Navy SEALs.

The SEALs argue the vaccine mandate violates their Constitutional rights.

“Americans live in freedom because warriors like Navy SEALs fight on our behalf,” said Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO, and chief counsel for First Liberty Institute. “Now it’s our turn to fight for them. We are grateful to every member of Congress who has joined in the fight to defend our clients against military actions that violate federal law and their Constitutional rights.”

The U.S. Air Force recently announced it had discharged 27 service members for refusing the vaccine. Since there are so few Navy SEALS, the impact of dozens or hundreds of discharges could be significant.

“We generally have about 2,500 Navy SEALs,” Robert O’Neill, a former Navy SEAL who claims to have killed Osama Bin Laden in Operation Neptune Spear, said earlier this year. “It takes time to get to certain levels. Hundreds are leaving because of nonsense.”

U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., warned of an exodus from the military over the summer. He said in July that several service members had informed him that resignations would come if the vaccine was mandated.

“According to the GAO and congressional testimony, there were similar results (departures) when the military mandated the anthrax vaccine,” said Massie, who also introduced legislation that would “prohibit any requirement that a member of the Armed Forces receive a vaccination against COVID-19.”

Several Republican lawmakers have pushed to prevent the dishonorable discharge of U.S. service members over the mandate. A dishonorable discharge strips someone’s rights to own a firearm, use the GI Bill for education and also prevents them from receiving the federal health and housing benefits that are normally available to veterans.

The issue became a point of debate in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense spending bill that passed this month. In that bill, lawmakers agreed to prohibit dishonorably discharging service members who refuse the mandate, but service members can still be discharged.

“In addition, this year’s NDAA includes a provision I fought for that removes the ability for the military to dishonorably discharge service members who choose not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a statement. “As President Biden’s unlawful vaccine mandates are continually challenged, this reform prevents our brave servicemen and women from being punished like convicted criminals for simply making what they believe is the best medical decision for themselves.”