Air Force vaccine mandate temporarily overturned by federal court

The vaccine mandate put into place by the Air Force in September 2021 to require servicemen to get vaccinated against Covid-19 hit a snag on Thursday, when a federal court in Ohio issued a temporary restraining order preventing the enactment of that mandate when there is a request for a religious exemption.

“The facts show Defendants [the Air Force] have engaged in a pattern of denying religious accommodation requests,” Judge Matthew McFarland stated in the order, finding in favor of those servicemen who seek relief under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. To date, the Air Force has granted some one percent of religious accommodation requests, and most of those are servicemen on their way out of the Air Force.

Servicemen cannot be forced, per the order, to undergo Covid vaccination in cases where their religious exemption request has been either denied or not yet acted upon. This was the determination in the case of Doster v. Kendall, and the temporary restraining order is valid for 14 days, during which time the court will consider extending the ban to protect those who object to Covid vaccination on religious grounds until the trial proceeds.

Attorneys for the Thomas More Society, “national not-for-profit law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, religious liberty, and election integrity,” per the group, call the ruling a “victory for religious freedom. The Thomas More Society has brought suit in the case of vaccine mandates in the military as well, and won the first preliminary injunction in the US against the mandates set forth by the Air Force, in the case Air Force Officer v. Austin.

“This is a huge victory for our country and religious freedom,” said Stephen Crampton, Thomas More Society Senior Counsel who is one of those representing the Airmen in the Air Force Officer case in Georgia.

“Not only does this decision protect the plaintiffs in the Doster case, but it also protects the fundamental First Amendment rights of Air Force service members all over the nation, including those in the Space Force, Air Force Academy Cadets, and those in the Reserves.”

“The court has correctly certified the class in Doster and rightly enjoined the Air Force mandate,” Crampton said. “It is gratifying to see the courts uphold their constitutional duty to ensure other branches of the government do not run roughshod over fundamental rights, as the Air Force has been doing here.”  

The Thomas More Society is engaged in an additional lawsuit, representing service members seeking a class acting certification for a nationwide injunction. A ruling is pending as to whether or not that will go forward.

“This order could not have come at a better time,” lead counsel for Air Force Officer v. Austin Adam Hochschild said, noting that “The government has recently ordered imminent punitive action against those men and women of faith who cannot in good conscience take these experimental vaccines, and this order stops the government in its tracks.”

The Supreme Court ruled in April that the Pentagon was within its right to discipline an Air Force Reserves lieutenant colonel who did not wish to undergo vaccination on religious grounds. The brief was an emergency application, and contained no opinions therefore. Three justices, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch noted their dissent with the ruling but did not explain.

The original order from the Air Force, which came after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed all “Secretaries of the Military Departments to immediately begin full vaccination of all members of the Armed Forces under DoD authority on active duty or in the Ready Reserve, including National Guard, who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” established “a requirement for Service members to be fully vaccinated.”

It read further that “Any refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, absent an approved exemption, may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Prior to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, Department of the Air Force Active and Reserve Component personnel, as well as the Air National Guard, will have access to healthcare providers and chaplains at DAF vaccination sites to address questions or concerns with COVID-19 vaccination. Commands are advised to consult with their servicing Staff Judge Advocate office for additional guidance on vaccination non-compliance. The process for obtaining exemptions for all mandatory vaccinations is provided in AFI 48-110_IP for medical exemptions, and DAFI 52-201 for religious accommodations.”

The Biden administration’s vaccine mandate that was in place for federal employees was overruled in January.

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