A federal judge has put the brakes on the U.S. Air Force’s plans to boot members who have thus far refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
U.S. District Judge Matthew McFarland, a Trump appointee, in Cincinnatti ordered the Air Force to pause discharging members who claim a religious exemption from the service’s vaccine requirement, according to Fox News. The current pause is set for 14 days.
The local lawsuit, which was launched by just 100 plaintiffs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, now applies to thousands of Air Force personnel around the world.
“We are pleased by the judge’s decision protecting the constitutional rights of service members who have dedicated their lives to protecting our constitutional rights,” attorney Chris Wiest told local outlet FOX19.
“We will continue to litigate this case to its conclusion and look forward to continuing this battle with the federal government,” Wiest added.
The temporary ruling comes after the U.S. Supreme Court in March granted a Pentagon request to limit deployments for unvaccinated active-duty U.S. military personnel who refused to take the vaccine, citing religious objections.
The First Liberty Institute and law firm Schaerr Jaffe LLP both filed a separate lawsuit against the Defense Department and the Air Force in June on behalf of Air Force members who have yet to be vaccinated against the virus, which amounts to around 2 percent of the force.
“Plaintiffs allege that the Department of Defense is violating the First Amendment rights of its service members by imposing a vaccine mandate that ‘substantially burdens’ free exercise of religion, despite granting hundreds of administrative and medical exemptions,” Fox News noted.
“In addition, the lawsuit argues that the government does not have a compelling interest and has not provided service members other less restrictive manners in which to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the report continued.
Meanwhile, in May, a U.S. Navy administrative separation board voted unanimously to retain an officer who would not comply with the mandate over religious beliefs. The board was not convinced that the mandate was lawful and did not see the officer’s refusal as misconduct, Just the News reported.
“The panel agreed with the officer’s lawyer, R. Davis Younts, who argued at the board hearing that the mandate for the experimental COVID vaccines was not a lawful order since the military has not made fully FDA-approved versions of the vaccines available to military members,” the outlet reported.
And last month, the Air Force backed down from court-martialling a Christian non-commissioned officer who would not take the vaccine:
Master Sergeant Vincent White, was served an “Article 15” non-judicial punishment in April, which is an allegation of violation of a lawful order. When White declined to accept the punishment and requested a trial by court-martial instead, the Air Force rescinded the punishment, but still intends to take his case to an administrative separation board.
At the time, Younts, who also represents White, told Just the News, “It’d be a significant embarrassment and a huge blow to the Air Force to have a judge rule [the mandate] an unlawful order or have a jury find … that it’s not a lawful order.”
If the vaccine order was found to be unlawful through a court-martial trial, it “would set a precedent that other military judges would be likely to follow,” Younts explained.