An Ohio court Tuesday upheld a legal pause on separations for airmen who have requested religious exemptions to the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine after finding that the Air Force “wrongly” relied on overly broad reasoning to turn down the waivers.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an ongoing class action suit prosecuted by roughly 10,000 unvaccinated active-duty, reserve and National Guard airmen who have either had their requests to avoid the vaccine on religious grounds denied or still await a decision. A circuit court in March ordered the Department of Defense (DOD), which has mandated vaccinations for all members of the military, to hold off on disciplining or separating airmen while the lawsuit progresses.
The DOD “wrongly relied on its ‘broadly formulated’ reasons for the vaccine mandate to deny specific exemptions to the Plaintiffs, especially since it has granted secular exemptions to their colleagues,” the court opinion said.
In addition, the latest opinion from Ohio’s 6th Circuit court alleges that the Air Force adopted a “uniform” policy of denying religious exemption requests, but not exemption requests made for secular reasons, regardless of the requester’s individual circumstances.
A vaccine waiver request must receive approval from medical professionals, a chaplain and individuals on each level of the requester’s chain of command, each of whom considers the particular state of the individual before reaching a final decision, the opinion states, citing Air Force rules.
“The evidence is undisputed — that the Air Force has a ‘uniform’ practice of denying religious exemptions to anyone who wants to remain in the service,” it continued.
“The Department of the Air Force is complying with a court order to pause all disciplinary and adverse actions for members refusing the COVID-19 vaccine who submitted a timely religious accommodation request and fall within the definition of the court’s certified class,” an Air Force spokesperson told Fox News.
However, lawyers for the plaintiffs and those representing Navy SEALs in a parallel case allege that the Pentagon’s policy violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by discriminating against servicemembers whose religious convictions advise against taking the vaccine.
“The decision is a significant win for religious freedom and a clear rebuke of the Air Force’s decision to engage in a pattern of religious discrimination. Throughout the process and in litigation the DoD has shown a clear disdain for the RFRA and those who had religious objections to the mandate,” R. Davis Younts, a criminal defense attorney who advocates on behalf of active members of the military, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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