Nine members of the Air Force are suing the government after officials denied their requests for religious exemptions from the Defense Department’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. 

In effect, denial of exemptions for religious reasons and discriminatory treatment force Air Force members to leave the service, said Mike Berry, director of military affairs at First Liberty Institute, which represents the nine service members.

“At a time of instability and ever-increasing threats around the world, you’d think the Pentagon would want every service member at their post,” Berry said in a press release. “But instead, military leaders are forcing tens of thousands of our bravest out of the service because they’ve chosen to live according to their faith.” 

The nine service members who filed suit range from an F-16 fighter pilot to the chief of training for a flying training group.

Their complaint, which names Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, and the Defense Department, argues that the Pentagon’s actions violate the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and the Pentagon’s own regulations. 

“We have a very small number of just plain refusers [of the COVID-19 vaccine],” Kendall said Wednesday during a Heritage Foundation event called “A Conversation on Readiness with the Secretary of the Air Force.”  

“These are people who just won’t obey a lawful order,” Kendall, who wasn’t specifically addressing the lawsuit, said. “If you’re going to be in the military, you’re going to have to follow orders.” 

Neither the Defense Department nor the Air Force responded to The Daily Signal’s request for comment on the lawsuit.

Washington-based law firm Schaerr Jaffe LLP and First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to defending religious freedom, represent the nine service members in alleging religious discrimination in their lawsuit against the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate.  

The nine service members seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction prohibiting the defense secretary and the secretary of the Air Force from taking adverse action against those who request a religious exemption or don’t submit proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

Their main argument is that the Defense Department’s actions are discriminatory since they “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion and haven’t been proven to be the least restrictive means of fulfilling any “compelling governmental interest” in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

The Defense Department offers three types of exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate: medical, administrative, and religious.

But in practice, “only service members with medical or administrative reasons for an exemption from the mandate are accommodated,” the nine Air Force members’ suit alleges. “Religious accommodation requests (‘RARs’) are universally denied unless the requester is already imminently leaving the Air Force.”

The Air Force has granted 1,800 medical and administrative requests for exemptions from the vaccination requirement, compared to only 81 out of 11,877 requests for religious accommodation. All 81 granted requests went to service members who already were exiting the Air Force, according to the lawsuit. 

“We have some people who requested a religious exemption. We’re processing those through, and there’s a two-step process,” Kendall said Wednesday at the Heritage event, adding: 

Basically, is it a well-founded belief that you have? Generally, we’re being generous with people on that in terms of what we’re requiring to demonstrate that. But the problem is if you have a well-founded belief, we’d like to accommodate you if we can, but we need people to be deployed.

And if you can’t be deployed, you may not be able to stay in the Air Force. We’ve got a few thousand people in that category that we’re working through; it’s a very small fraction of the Air Force.  

The lawsuit says that the service members’ religious objections to the vaccine include “opposition to abortion and the use of fetal cell lines in development of the vaccine,” “belief that the mRNA technology utilized in some COVID-19 vaccines usurps God’s creation of the human genome,” and belief that “the body is a temple and taking the vaccine would defile that temple.” 

The suit says that besides denial of their religious exemptions, the Air Force members experienced other forms of discrimination by the Defense Department. “Plaintiffs have lost promotions that had already been announced, received official discipline, been barred from training opportunities, and placed in a no-pay status,” the suit argues. 

The nine plaintiffs represent the approximately 3% of Air Force members who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the complaint notes. Air Force members who requested medical or administrative exemptions didn’t experience discrimination or punishment, according to the suit. Unvaccinated individuals with the same duties as the plaintiffs “have not been the subjects of adverse action, simply because their requests were secular rather than religious,” the suit claims. 

In a press release, First Liberty Institute says of the nine service members: 

Representing multiple faiths, they object to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. Without consideration of the ever-changing nature of COVID-19, its variants, or natural immunity, the Air Force has rejected almost all applications for religious accommodation despite approving hundreds of medical and administrative exemptions from its vaccine requirement. 

“Punishing these servicemembers for seeking religious accommodation is illegal, vindictive, and wrong,” First Liberty Institute’s Berry said. “Religious liberty is essential to national security, and our service members deserve better.” 

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