President Biden signed a defense policy bill on Friday that includes a provision cleared by the House and the Senate to repeal the administration’s military vaccine mandate.
The National Defense Authorization Act will terminate the COVID-19 vaccine for military members, but it does not reinstate members of the military who were discharged or had their benefits cut for refusing to get the vaccine. Reinstatement is a priority for some Republicans who have said the strict mandate is one reason why military recruitment is at a “record low.”
The road to the mandate’s termination started in August 2021, when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a memo requiring all service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19. As a result, a series of lawsuits were filed against the Biden administration on the behalf of service members seeking religious and medical exemptions to the mandate.
Service members seeking exemptions to the mandate also began speaking out about punishments and involuntary terminations, and the military’s recruitment and retainment capabilities began to rapidly drop.
The first federal lawsuit was filed in November 2021 by 35 active-duty SEALs and three reservists. The suit claimed the military was infringing upon service members’ First Amendment freedoms and intimidating them into getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
Fox News Digital learned that a series of directives by the U.S. Navy promised severe punishment against violators, including court-martial (criminal) prosecution, revocation of special operator status, drastic pay cuts and a ban on travel for SEALs who do not comply with the mandate by the end of November 2021. A lower court issued the first hold on the government’s military vaccine mandate in early 2022.
However, the Supreme Court in March 2022 temporarily granted the Pentagon’s request to limit the deployment of unvaccinated active military members who refused to get COVID shots based on religious grounds while the case continued.
Additionally, Fox News Digital first reported that unvaccinated Navy sailors who are seeking religious exemptions to the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate were transferred into deplorable living conditions and, in some cases, were unable to leave while awaiting termination from the military, according to court documents.
The findings sparked outrage by members of Congress, including Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who promised action and pressed the Pentagon for answers.
Air Force and Space Force
Last month, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction from October that protects unvaccinated U.S. Air Force and Space Force service members from being punished or involuntarily terminated from the military due to religious objections to the vaccine.
The Air Force is still grounding pilots who sought religious accommodation to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate but is allowing other unvaccinated service members to resume regular flying duties.
The U.S. Marine Corps issued new “interim guidance,” signed Sept. 14 and posted quietly online, which amended the actions taken against unvaccinated Marines whose religious accommodation requests were denied and who appealed the decision.
That amended guidance came after a U.S. Federal District Court in Florida issued a preliminary injunction on Aug. 18 prohibiting the Marines from taking “certain actions” against those seeking religious exemptions. The guidance said the “Marine Corps will not enforce any order to accept COVID-19 vaccination, administratively separate, or retaliate against Marines in the class for asserting statutory rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).”
The Marines’ previous directive required commanders to delay the promotions of “any officer and delay/restrict the promotion of any enlisted member refusing the vaccine,” but the updated guidance outlined a series of steps to walk that specific punishment back in specific cases.
Additionally, a top general argued that the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate is putting a dent in recruitment efforts.
“Where it is having an impact for sure is on recruiting, where in parts of the country there’s still myths and misbeliefs about the backstory behind it,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said of the mandate during a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
The U.S. Army is subjecting unvaccinated soldiers to punishment, including prohibiting off-base travel, halting promotions and enforcing involuntary terminations from the service, which active-duty service members claim is a strategy to pressure them to abandon their deeply held religious beliefs.
An Army spokesperson confirmed to Fox News Digital that unvaccinated soldiers, including those without an approved religious accommodation exemption, are “subject to certain adverse administrative actions.”
The Army, which has separated nearly 2,000 soldiers for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, is having the most difficult time filling its ranks in part due to the vaccine mandate and fell 25% short of its recruiting goals last year.
The U.S. Coast Guard allegedly used a “digital tool” to illegally assist in mass denials of religious COVID-19 vaccine exemptions, even though federal law and Pentagon policy requires an individualized analysis of every request.
Fox News Digital first reported that the Pentagon’s Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell issued an internal memo that said the agency is in “potential noncompliance” with standards for reviewing and denying religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
“We found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies,” the acting IG said in his report to the secretary of defense.
In addition, Coast Guard members who are nearing 20 years in military service but have not complied with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate due to religious objections are now being terminated just before they gain full access to promised military pension and retirement benefits.
First Liberty Institute, which represents the Navy SEALs and Air Force in fighting the vaccine mandate, told Fox News Digital that Congress’ action is a “positive” first step, but there is more to be done to stop religious discrimination in the military.
“We’re pleased that Congress finally acted to protect our brave warriors before more damage is done to them and our national security,” said First Liberty President and CEO Kelly Shackleford.
“The President and the Secretary of Defense owe our troops an apology for the religious hostility they’ve endured. If our nation and our military are to remain the greatest on earth, service members of faith must be treated with dignity, tolerance, and respect, not forced to choose between their faith and serving their country,” she said.