Religion and the Law

Federal Court on Military Religious Exemptions from COVID Vaccination

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Justice Steven Merryday (M.D. Fla.) denies certain related claims today (Navy Seal 1 v. Biden), but deferred judgment on these ones:

Whether characterized as a facial challenge or as a class of precisely similar as-applied challenges, requiring only a single judicial determination, the plaintiffs' contention is — based on current data — quite plausible that each branch's procedure for requesting a religious exemption is a ruse that will result inevitably in the undifferentiated (and therefore unlawful under RFRA) denial of each service member's request. Particularly, the data produced by the defendants show that more than 16,643 requests for a religious exemption pend. The military has granted no exemptions but has denied hundreds.

This disparity, although susceptible to a benign explanation is, as well, susceptible to an explanation actionable and remediable under RFRA. The importance of a person's right to religious liberty, protected in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution and the explicit implementing commands of RFRA, commends deferring the resolution of the service members' motion for preliminary injunction pending the accumulation and reporting of additional data and the resumption — with the benefit of more complete and telling data — of the hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction.

Counsel for the defendants acknowledged at the hearing that each service branch retains a centralized and readily accessible record of the status of each exemption request in each branch of the military. The defendants must file every FOURTEEN DAYS, beginning on January 7, 2022, a notice providing SEPARATELY FOR EACH BRANCH OF THE ARMED FORCES:

(1) the aggregate number of religious-exemption requests from COVID-19 vaccination, the aggregate number of initial denials, the number of those denials in which the chaplain determined that the asserted belief is sincere, the aggregate number of appeals pending, the aggregate number of denials for which the time to appeal has expired without appeal, the number of appeals denied, the number of successful appeals (that is, the number of appeals that resolve or remand for resolution the application for an exemption), and the total number of religious exemptions finally granted and finally denied;

(2) the number of medical-exemption requests from COVID-19 vaccination and the number of medical exemptions granted and denied;

(3) the number of other exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination granted for any other reason; and

(4) the number of courts-martial and the number of separation proceedings pending or concluded against a service member whose request for a religious exemption was denied after appeal.