Under the Biden administration, the armed forces have been aggressively pushing soldiers to get the COVID vaccine or face the consequences. The new rules threaten to harm military retention and recruitment. For Christians, vaccine mandates pose a host of complex questions and conscience concerns. Monday, First Liberty Institute attorney and Marine Corps reservist Mike Berry joined Tony Perkins on "Washington Watch" to discuss the military's recent efforts to force service members to get vaccinated.
Tony Perkins: All branches of the U.S. military have set deadlines for service members to get the COVID vaccine. Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps active-duty service members have deadlines in November. Last week, the U.S. Army announced that active-duty soldiers have until December 15th to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Those who do not get the COVID shot could face a possible discharge from the military. For those seeking waivers to avoid immunization, there are essentially two options -- medical or religious exemptions. But some have been reportedly told that pursuing religious exemptions would be futile... Let's start with this. Is it futile for members of the military to seek a religious exemption from the vaccine?
Mike Berry: Absolutely not. Federal law, regulations, the Constitution... they all protect the right of service members to request religious exemptions from this vaccine mandate and any military official, any commanding officer or anyone in the chain of command who tries to say otherwise is simply not telling the truth. And I suspect that many of them are, whether wittingly or unwittingly, misleading their troops...
TP: Now, Mike, last week, the military said that the request for religious exemptions was going to be sent to the chaplains, if I understand correctly. And that was going to be based upon denominational positions on the vaccine. But the reality is, you know, the denominations haven't taken issues on the vaccine themselves. This is more of an individual religious liberty issue, is it not?
MB: That's absolutely right. And again, any military commander or person in a position of authority who tries to do that and by that, I mean tries to direct a service member or coerce or compel them to speak to a particular chaplain of a denomination or to provide some sort of denominational position is playing a very dangerous constitutional game. Because not only does the law not require that in many instances; the law forbids government officials from forcing or compelling service members to essentially prove the legitimacy or validity of their religious beliefs. And one of the things First Liberty has been advising service members of for four weeks now is the only thing you have to establish as the service member is sincerity. Your belief just has to be sincere. It doesn't even have to be reasonable in the eyes of somebody else as long as it is sincere. Then the burden shifts to the government. The government now has to carry the water, not you. And so that's why I say that these commanders and other officials are playing a very dangerous constitutional game.
TP: So, Mike Berry, we have a lot of members of the military that listen to our program, and I've actually been in communication with some who have emailed me about this concern. What do they need to do? How can they find out more about their rights, in terms of exerting a religious exemption? And where might they find legal help?
MB: At First Liberty, we've been experiencing the same thing, hundreds, I mean, thousands of people nationwide across all sectors of society and hundreds who are in the military, whether they're active duty or reserve, they're being harassed, they're being intimidated, they're experiencing all sorts of hostility. So what we did is we created a... COVID vaccine toolkit... It explains the law regarding vaccine mandates. There's an entire section devoted to service members and what service members can do... There is an entire section devoted to the military with a template that service members can use to fill out that will essentially enable them to submit a religious exemption request. And what we're telling folks, is we can't represent everybody who wants to submit a religious exemption request. But if your request is denied, send it to us at FirstLiberty.org. We can review it and evaluate it and determine whether or not the request was denied properly or improperly, and if it was denied improperly, let's look at whether or not we should appeal that.
TP: Mike, what has been your experience thus far with those making the religious liberty exemption claim?
MB: Unfortunately, so far, Tony, it's just as you described at the beginning of our segment, which is they've been experiencing a lot of hostility and a lot of subtle and sometimes not so subtle coercion and commanders have been telling them, you can submit this request, but it's an exercise in futility because I'm not going to grant it or the military is not going to grant it. I mean, in one instance, an officer who's at the U.S. Naval Academy told me that every person at the Naval Academy in the faculty and staff who is not vaccinated was told they had to report zero eight hundred in the morning. They were all rounded up in a room. They were given one last chance to get vaccinated and if they weren't, then they were told, well, you can submit a medical exemption request or religious exemption request, but we're telling you we are not going to favorably recommend that you get the exemption. And we believe the Navy will deny all of them... What I'm telling people is, look, there will be some that get denied... We understand that that's the way that the law works. Not every request for exemption is going to be granted, but the number can't be zero. And thus far it's been zero, and that's a legal impossibility and it defies logic.
TP: Well, Mike Berry, we're going to encourage those that want to take this stand and exert this freedom to [contact] you if they need help, because you certainly will stand with them. Mike Berry, always great to talk with you. Thanks so much for being with us today.
**To read more from Mike Berry, see his piece "The Military Vaccine Mandate and the Right to Religious Accommodation."