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Religious Exempters Vindicated By Ruling In COVID-19 Mandate Case

Military members who contended that the 2021 policy mandating COVID-19 vaccines violated their religious beliefs scored a legal victory on Oct 3.

According to the Military Times, a Florida judge awarded the firm representing a group of Navy Seals a judgment of $1.8 million to cover the legal fees the group racked up while fighting the policy.

Liberty Counsel’s chairman, Mat Staver, released a statement to the Military Times, “The military COVID shot mandate is dead,” Staver said. “Our heroic service members can no longer be forced to take this experimental jab that conflicts with their religious convictions.”

Religious vaccine exceptions have been rare throughout the history of the armed forces, but following pressure from Republican legislators, the military adopted a new interpretation of religious freedom in 2020, one that opened the door for a service person’s moral principles, not just established religious beliefs. Groups like the Trump-friendly First Liberty met this expansion with glee, calling it a “great victory for America’s brave service members.” In contrast, others, like Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder and president Mikey Weinstein, described it as something that could potentially “obliterate the wall of separation between church and state in our military.”

The vaccine mandate was repealed in January via a memo from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stating, “The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all service members.” Austin added, “The Department has made COVID-19 vaccination as easy and convenient as possible, resulting in vaccines administered to over two million service members and 96 percent of the force ― Active and Reserve ― being fully vaccinated.”

Seventeen thousand service people refused the vaccine, resulting in 8,000 being discharged and 1,000 religious exemptions given out, according to the Military Times. These numbers predate the end of the vaccine mandate policy. Those troops formerly discharged because of their refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine can now file for a correction of records with their branch of service, and they can rejoin the armed forces if they desire.