Rank Overreach and Filed Appeals

March 3, 2022

President Biden offered an olive branch in his Tuesday State of the Union address, but he only delivered a fig leaf. The rhetoric was inspiring: "We can't change how divided we've been. But we can change how we move forward -- on COVID-19 and other issues we must face together." The reality was quite different. Just the day before, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Justice Department's appeal of a preliminary injunction, which prevents the Navy from punishing SEALs who are challenging the military COVID vaccine mandate on religious grounds while the lawsuit proceeds through the courts.

It's unclear why the Biden administration is continuing this legal fight against servicemembers with conscience objections to the COVID vaccine. More than 97 percent of active-duty military personnel are vaccinated. The latest variant, Omicron, was milder and more survivable, and has mostly burnt itself out anyways. Just in time for the State of the Union, the CDC and the House of Representatives both loosened their masking guidelines in an effort to move on from the pandemic. Dragged along by public opinion and the reopening of even the strictest Democrat-run states, the Biden administration seems as if they are finally coming to terms with the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, three years after it began.

Yet while the Biden administration tries to pivot away from the pandemic and towards the ongoing foreign policy crisis in Europe, the justice department and military branches continue oppressing servicemembers with religious objections to the vaccine. "We've been fighting the administration tooth-and-nail, step-by-step, against this vaccine mandate," said Mike Berry, Director of Military Affairs for First Liberty Institute. What is the point anymore? "With all of the threats to America," said Berry, "you would think that the Department of Defense would want to be welcoming people with the type of elite skills that our Navy SEALs have."

The problem goes beyond First Liberty's clients. Only fifteen military religious exemptions have been approved, out 16,000 requested. The Marine Corps has granted six exemptions out of 3,595 and have "separated" 640 Marines. The Army and Navy have granted none of the 3,088 and 3,369 exemption requests, respectively; the Navy has fired 269 sailors, while the Army "only recently put into place its separation policy." The Air Force has approved the most exemptions, a measly nine, but they have also rejected 3,381 with another 2,664 requests pending. In approving an Air Force officer's exemption in a separate case in Georgia, a judge asked, "What real interest can our military leaders have in furthering a requirement that violates the very document they swore to support and defend?" That great question has no good answer.

Our military faces the same spiritual crisis gripping the entire nation. Having turned their backs on God, Americans now feel the need to exert godlike control over their lives. When something they can't control (like a global pandemic or a needless war) explodes that fantasy, they are paralyzed by fear. That's why we spent weeks and months trapped in our homes by government edict, and why we've imposed a reading disability crisis on children to make ourselves feel better.

This newfound obsession with control tends dangerously towards authoritarianism. "Religious freedom is always one of the first flashpoints in those regimes because the one thing... an authoritarian will never tolerate is people who will say, I submit to a higher authority,'" said Berry. Like butterflies or canaries, the military's intolerance of faith is a warning of impending hostility throughout society. But since acting against conscience "is neither right nor safe," we must keep standing.