A federal judge in Tampa has issued a temporary restraining order against the U.S. military, saying the Department of Defense is unlawfully discriminating against service members by denying religious exemptions for COVID-19 shots.
U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday issued the restraining order for two service members pending a hearing as a result of Liberty Counsel's request for an emergency injunction in Navy SEAL 1 v. Biden. Liberty Counsel is a Christian religious rights law firm representing the two unnamed officers.
According to court documents, one plaintiff is identified as U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel 2 whose appeal for a religious exemption from the COVID shot was denied. On Feb. 2, she was to be added to the Officer Disciplinary Notebook, beginning the
Board of Inquiry Process and her command selection withdrawn, irreparably damaging her career. This officer would have been ultimately discharged from the Marine Corps.
The second plaintiff, a U.S. Navy Command Surface Warfare Officer, was denied a religious exemption from the COVID shot and faced immediate discipline when he would have been removed from command as captain of his ship, irreparably damaging his career.
"The record in this action establishes that the two service members are very likely to prevail on their claim that their respective branch of the military has wrongfully denied a religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccination," Judge Merryday wrote. "The record creates a strong inference that the services are discriminatorily and systematically denying religious exemptions without a meaningful and fair hearing and without the showing required under RFRA (while simultaneously granting medical exemptions and permitting unvaccinated persons to continue in service without adverse consequence)."
In his court order, Merryday prohibited Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin "from diminishing or altering in any manner and for any reason the current status of Navy Commander and Lieutenant Colonel, including their assignment, privileges, rank, or the like. In short, Navy Commander and Lieutenant Colonel must remain 'as is' throughout the duration of this injunctive relief until Feb. 11."
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, "The court acknowledges that while the military is allowing unvaccinated service members with medical exemptions, it is unlawfully denying religious exemptions. Yesterday's order is a positive step toward finally putting an end to this abuse of the law and of our military personnel."
US Military Only Granted 3 Religious Exemptions Out of 22,951 Requests
The judge previously ordered each branch of the military to file a detailed report regarding religious exemptions from the COVID-19 shot every 14 days beginning Friday, January 7, 2022. The filings received by the court as of January 21, 2022, show that out of 22,951 religious exemption requests received, only three were granted, and those were questionable since at least two of those service members were already scheduled to leave the military.
However, 3,449 medical exemptions have been granted. The reports confirm the military continues to deny religious exemptions while granting medical exemptions.
Liberty Counsel attorneys are scheduled to return to the U.S. District Court in Tampa for a hearing on Thursday, Feb. 10 to extend this emergency injunction and to obtain the same relief for all the military plaintiffs.
The law firm represents plaintiffs from five branches of the military, federal employees, and federal civilian contractors who have been unlawfully mandated to get the COVID shots or face punishment and discharge from the military or termination from employment.
While the current order applies to two of the many military plaintiffs due to the immediate harm, the lawsuit includes members from all branches of the military and also requests class certification to cover every member whose religious exemptions have been denied.
As CBN News has previously reported, a growing number of U.S. service members say the military is stripping them of their religious liberties. Many of the COVID-19 vaccination deadlines for active-duty members have passed without a single religious exemption being granted. This has led several service members to file federal lawsuits against the Biden administration.
On Feb. 3, the Army announced it would immediately begin discharging soldiers who have refused to get the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine, putting more than 3,300 service members at risk of being discharged soon.
The Army's announcement makes it the final military service to lay out its discharge policy for vaccine refusers. The Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy have already discharged active-duty troops or entry-level personnel at boot camps for refusing the shots.
In December, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby admitted to CBN News that religious exemptions are rare. For example, none have been granted in either the Navy or Marines in almost a decade.
"This is not about liberties, it's about a military medical requirement to keep them safe, to keep their families safe, to keep their units safe and the Secretary continues to strongly believe that these vaccines are the best way to do it with respect to COVID," Kirby said.
A Navy spokesman also told CBN News at the time there is no "blanket policy" about denying religious exemption requests. Each is reportedly considered on a case-by-case basis. There are, however, very strict guidelines that must be met, including a history of objecting to vaccinations. Anyone who refuses to get vaccinated, Christian or not, will be given a general discharge.
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