By Mike Berry, Vice President of External Affairs, Director of Military Affairs and Senior Counsel
The Department of Defense’s recent announcement that all service members must now receive the COVID-19 vaccine, or else, sends the wrong message to America’s military. My firm, First Liberty Institute, has recently been inundated with requests for legal help from service members about the legality of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The service members who have contacted us are as diverse as our armed forces. They are officers, enlisted, men, women, aviators, Special Forces, chaplains, commanders and JAGs. But they all share one thing in common: Each has a sincere religious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Under federal law and DOD regulations, service members have the legal right to seek a religious accommodation from any duty or requirement — including vaccines — that substantially burdens their sincerely held religious beliefs. Importantly, the law also protects those who seek religious accommodations from being punished in any way. In fact, a religious accommodation request does not challenge the legality of an order, regulation or policy, or the authority of the person who issued it. Rather, it seeks to have that order, regulation or policy deemed “not applicable” to the service member under the specific circumstances of the request.
Thus far, the Pentagon has publicly stated that it intends to honor those requirements. But the reports coming in from the front lines tell a much different story.
Multiple times each day, I field desperate cries for help from service members who have been told that requesting a religious accommodation is an exercise in futility. Or worse, that merely seeking a religious accommodation would cause the individual to be blacklisted, ensuring they will never be promoted again. Others still report that military privileges such as being able to travel home for holidays, leaving the ship when it is in port, or flight status, will be withheld unless and until they show proof of vaccination.
America’s warriors deserve far better. The men and women with whom I’ve spoken are brave, proud, patriotic Americans. They can tolerate the bad knees, broken backs, missed life events (such as birthdays, weddings and funerals), being shot at or blown up, and the enduring trauma that come with decades of war. But to be told to ignore their deepest religious convictions and “just get the shot” is utterly intolerable.
Nearly every service member with whom I’ve spoken tells me that, if given an ultimatum, they would rather leave the service than violate their religious beliefs. Some are willing to be court-martialed. Let that sink in. This is an issue so deeply personal and important that some service members are willing to follow in Desmond Doss’ footsteps and face criminal charges rather than violate their beliefs.
It defies logic that the Pentagon would be so willing to purge thousands of service members. It costs American taxpayers millions of dollars for the military to produce a commander, aviator, Special Forces operator, chaplain or JAG — not to mention the years of institutional knowledge and experience that will be lost.
As our nation just observed the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that resulted in two decades of war, we should be doing everything we can to honor our service members. Forcing them to choose between their religious beliefs and serving their nation dishonors the sacrifices they made to keep us free.
The solution is simple. Stop paying lip service to religious freedom. Our goal should be 100% Constitution compliance, not 100% vaccine compliance. The commander in chief and DOD officials must send a clear message that Americans do not give up their religious freedom when they join the military.
Note: This article was first published on Stars and Stripes and is re-published here with permission. The article presents the main points of an op-ed published in Stars and Stripes. This work was authored by Mike Berry. The full article can be found on the Stars and Stripes website, here.