Is Religious Freedom Even on the Military's Radar?

January 11, 2022

The Defense Department didn't have any trouble getting 97 percent of its troops vaccinated -- but when it comes to granting some exemptions, well, they're just too busy. On Monday, the same day the Pentagon upped its alarm level on the virus to HPCON Charlie (Health Protection Condition Charlie), Pentagon spokesman John Kirby struggled to answer the looming questions -- from why the vaccinated troops were getting COVID to where the religious accommodations were. As usual, none of the department's answers did much to reassure anyone.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin "continues to believe strongly... that the vaccines really do work," Kirby insisted. "And it really is, when it comes down to it, it's a readiness issue," he tried to explain. But if readiness really mattered, why is the military so intent on discharging thousands of troops with faith-based objections? Instead of depleting the force, why not grant the opt-outs that so many service members requested?

Kirby didn't really have an answer, instead replying that the process is "controlled by each of the military departments: the Army, the Department of the Navy and Department of the Air Force, Space Force. They are in charge of adjudicating those exemption requests and making those decisions. But in terms of your broader question, which is I think... does DOD still believe in the value of a religious exemption process for this or any other vaccine? The answer is yes, we do," he continued.

That's news to people like First Liberty Institute's Mike Berry, who's gone to court on behalf of 35 Navy SEALs who were threatened with losing their tridents just for applying for a religious exemption. And yet, the DOD still wants people to think that the military values their conscientious objections. "We believe that there should be a channel vehicle through which men and women of the workforce who believe they have legitimate religious exemptions to seek on their behalf. That they have a process to make that request and to have that request treated seriously... I understand the numbers are zero right now in terms of COVID [accommodations]," he went on, "but even the services will tell you they still have a backlog of -- in some cases -- thousands of additional religious exemption requests to work through. So, this is an ongoing process, yes."

This is a Defense Department that managed to get millions of troops vaccinated in a matter of months, but when it comes to processing some paperwork, it's simply too overwhelming. Berry doesn't buy it. When we asked him what he thought of Kirby's excuse, he didn't pull any punches.

"Despite what the Pentagon says, we all know this is a sham process with a pre-determined outcome. The DOD has approved zero religious accommodations for the vaccine mandate, yet it has approved hundreds, maybe even thousands, of medical and administrative exemptions. If a virus with over 99 percent survivability is really that deadly, and the vaccine with hundreds of thousands of breakthrough cases is really that effective, then DOD would not allow any exemptions for any reason. But we now know the vaccine is not very effective and the DOD's entire exemption scheme is a charade. It's nothing more than religious discrimination and a political agenda."

For our military's sake -- and America's sake -- let's hope the courts agree.