Navy, Air Force allegedly issuing blanket denials of religious exemptions from COVID vax mandate

The military is required by law to examine religious accommodation requests on an individual basis.
Air National Guard COVID Vaccine, Jan. 28, 2021

The Navy and Air Force are allegedly issuing predetermined blanket denials of requests for religious exemptions from the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, in violation of federal law and regulations.

Vice Admiral John Nowell, deputy chief of naval operations for manpower, personnel, training, and education, created a 50-step standard operating procedure streamlining the denials of these requests, known as religious accommodation requests (RARs).

The military is required by law to evaluate RARs on an individual basis to ensure due process under the Fifth Amendment and protect service members' First Amendment right to religious freedom.

The 50-step process is separated into six phases. In phase 1, before an individual service member's RAR is reviewed, a denial template letter is added to the package of documentation included with the request.

The screenshot provided in steps 15 and 27 shows that highlighted portions of the letter to be edited include the service member's and supervisor's names and processing dates. But the section that says "your request for religious accommodation through waiver of immunization requirements is disapproved" is already written and not highlighted for editing. There's no mention of an approval template letter.

In phase 4, a reviewing officer is instructed to examine the RAR in step 35. "THIS IS THE MOST CRITICAL STEP IN THE ENTIRE PROCESS AND THE [Chief of Naval Operations] AND [Chief of Naval Personnel] ARE RELYING ON YOU TO ENSURE THAT YOUR REVIEW IS THOUROUGH [sic] AND ACCURATE," the instructions emphasize in all caps. "DO NOT RUSH THIS PROCESS AND ENSURE THAT YOU UNDERSTAND BEFORE MOVING FORWARD."

According to a formal complaint lodged with the chief of naval operations by a Navy officer who wishes to remain anonymous, this step is designed to provide an appearance of individual consideration of RARs because, by this point, the denial template has already been added, numerous offices have endorsed the denial, and a drafted memo to Nowell requests a denial.

The Air Force has also come under scrutiny regarding RARs. In October, an Air Force Reserve diversity officer filed a religious discrimination complaint after her orders were allegedly canceled for seeking an RAR.

The Air Force denies applying a one-size-fits-all standard to religious exemption requests, telling Just the News on Monday, "The Department of the AF does an individualized least restrictive means analysis for each case."

The military branch also made a similar statement in court last month.

"The Air Force does not apply a 'blanket' rule that no less restrictive means of protecting the force exists other than a vaccination," respondent Maj. Gen. Sharon Bannister, director of medical operations in the Department of the Air Force office of the surgeon general, told the District Court for Middle District of Florida in her declaration to the court on Dec. 3, 2021.

"The Approval and Appeal Authority must look at numerous factors that vary by individual," she continued. "The Department of the Air Force strives to make sure full and appropriate consideration is given to each request. Where an accommodation can be granted without adversely impacting the compelling government interest in mission accomplishment, it will be."

However, there have been no approvals by the service of religious accommodation requests, alleges an Air Force officer who also wishes to remain anonymous.

In response to this officer's RAR, the Air Force said — two months prior to Bannister's statement — that "vaccination is the least restrictive means of furthering the military's compelling governmental interest."

"The Air Force," the RAR denial recommendation continued, "could attempt to accomplish the governmental interest through alternative means, such as requiring face masks, distancing, and routine testing; however, such means would be much less effective than vaccination."

However, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committe in early 2021, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Director for Operations, Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro indicated there are alternatives to vaccination that are compatible with sound military operation.

"The services and the commands have worked very hard over the last year to make sure that we can operate in a COVID environment, before vaccines were available," Taliaferro said. "The addition of the vaccine should make us more capable in that environment. But we've already demonstrated over the last year that we're fully capable of operating in a COVID environment."

"It seems clear that the Navy and Air Force fully intend to deny all religious accommodation requests," said Davis Younts, an attorney representing the Navy officer. "The entire process appears pre-determined from the beginning. This is a clear and intentional violation of the constitutional rights of military members."

Younts told Just the News that he has verified the accuracy of the information provided by the two military officers "through multiple interviews."

The Navy was unable to provide a comment to Just the News by publishing time, citing holiday understaffing.