Federal Appeals Court Sides With Air Force Personnel In COVID Vaccine Case

Federal Appeals Court Sides With Air Force Personnel In COVID Vaccine Case

The U.S. Air Force may not punish service members who refused to take a COVID-19 vaccine over religious objections, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday.

The decision upheld a lower court’s previous ruling stating that religious objections to the vaccine were valid and constitutional, thereby barring President Joe Biden’s Defense Department from taking disciplinary action against Air Force members who refused the jab, the Daily Wire reported, adding:

The case, Doster v. Kendallinvolved several Air Force service members who had rejected the COVID-19 vaccine for religious purposes. The most recent decision is part of a continuing class action lawsuit. 

In the opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Murphy pointed out that almost 10,000 service members have asked for a religious exemption from the Air Force’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but the Air Force has only given around 135 of those petitions “and only to those already planning to leave the service.” However, the Air Force has “granted thousands of other exemptions for medical reasons […] or administrative reasons.”

In all, 18 plaintiffs, both active duty and reserve, filed suit against Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall. The suit stated that the Defense Department mandate “substantially burdens their religious exercise in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).”

“Under RFRA, the Air Force 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 opinion noted.

While the appeals court opinion recognized the Pentagon’s “military readiness” argument, adding that the service branch may have a “compelling interest” to ensure that all 501,000 members get the vaccine, “[i]t has also largely achieved this general interest, as evidenced by its ability to vaccinate over 97% of its force.”

But under the RFRA, the Air Force must demonstrate “that it has a compelling interest in refusing a ‘specific’ exemption… And just because it might have a compelling interest in the abstract does not mean that it has one ‘in each marginal percentage point by which’ it achieves this abstract interest,” the ruling noted further.

A lower federal court issued an injunction against the Air Force, barring the branch from meting out punishment for members who refused the jab, “then certified a class of thousands of similar service members and extended this injunction to the class.”

That said, the lower court “narrowed the scope of its injunction to permit the Air Force to refuse to enlist or commission new service members who refuse to take a COVID-19 vaccine,” the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion noted.

Chris Wiest, an attorney for the plaintiffs, responded that “[m]y clients are extraordinarily pleased with this decision.”

”We established, and the Court found, a substantial basis of systemic discrimination towards religious believers. This decision will protect the liberty and livelihood of approximately 10,000 class members, all of whom have undertaken to protect our country. The least we can do is extend to them the rights that they protect for all of us,” he stated.

Following the release of the opinion, an Air Force spokesperson told Fox News Digital: “[t]he 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.”


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