Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford has promised to block Department of Defense nominees until President Joe Biden’s administration explains the tens of thousands of religious accommodation requests it never granted or even answered.
“This is not over,” Lankford told The Daily Signal on Monday evening during a press call.
The senator emphasized that the Department of Defense has had a defined process for making decisions on religious accommodations, and that it has made such decisions for the past two centuries. Yet thousands of service members have not been told whether their religious exemptions to the COVID-19 mandate will be granted—and many have been denied.
“This one just seems to be hanging out there,” he added, calling the Defense Department’s failure to deal with the matter “absurd.”
Statistics from the U.S. Army, for example, show that 4,440 active Army members requested permanent religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine (this figure does not include Army National Guard or Army Reserve). The Army only approved 119 of them, and rejected 1,797. The Army did not immediately address to The Daily Signal what was going on with the other 2,524 requests.
The Air Force has only granted 200 approvals out of 11,000 religious accommodation requests, spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told The Daily Signal on Tuesday.
Once he has obtained answers from the Biden administration on why the DOD either never answered or granted the tens of thousands of religious accommodation requests to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, Lankford intends to “finish the process,” the senator said. He plans to ask about reparations for families who have incurred egregious medical or legal bills due to the mandate.
“I’ve demanded answers on why the Biden admin has granted almost none of the thousands of religious exemption requests for military vaccine mandates,” he said earlier this month. “With no adequate response, I announced a hold on DOD nominees. Partial concessions in the NDAA won’t be enough – we need the truth.”
Lankford, who is a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has repeatedly raised concerns about the treatment of service members who chose not to get vaccinated. In August, he sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressing concerns about “deplorable living conditions for service members who have religious objections to the COVID vaccine.”
“At best, these reports demonstrate your lack of care for the service members you lead,” he warned. “At worst, it demonstrates an active distain for and hostility toward them.”
“Sailors recount being transferred to living quarters covered in mold, sewage, and with no access to clean or running water,” the senator explained. “One sailor testified to organisms living in the stagnant water that surrounds her bathroom. Photo evidence revealed unlivable conditions that no person should be subjected to, let alone our men and women in uniform. These conditions render that of an authoritarian and abusive government, which falls far below the standard of the military of the greatest nation on earth.”
In September, an internal memo obtained by Military.com suggested that the military may have been rapidly and carelessly denying religious exemptions, glancing over the exemption requests for only a few minutes.
“We found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies,” Pentagon acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell said in a June memo to Austin, the publication reported. “Some of the appellate decisions included documentation that demonstrated a greater consideration of facts and circumstances involved in a request.”
“The volume and rate at which decisions were made to deny requests is concerning,” the memo added. “Assuming a 10-hour work day with no breaks or attention to other matters, the average review period was about 12 minutes for each package. Such a review period seems insufficient to process each request in an individualized manner and still perform the duties required of their position.”
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