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How the military will handle religious exemptions to vaccine mandates

A draft document obtained by the Deseret News shows how Coast Guard chaplains could try to discourage religious exemption requests

Hickam 15th Medical Group host the first COVID-19 mass vaccination on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Feb. 9, 2021.
Hickam 15th Medical Group hosts the first COVID-19 mass vaccination on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Feb. 9, 2021.
Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr., Department of Defense via Associated Press

In the battle over religious exemptions to military vaccine mandates, American service members may be outmatched.

Recently released vaccine directives make it clear that requests for such exemptions will be closely scrutinized, especially when the applicant has willingly received other shots, according to Military.com.

Additionally, the policies state that service members with faith-based concerns about COVID-19 vaccines must do more than fill out a simple form if they hope to sidestep the mandates. Members of the Coast Guard, for example, must submit a written request to their commanding officer and then meet with both a military physician and chaplain as that request moves up the chain of command.

A draft document of guidance for Coast Guard chaplains obtained by the Deseret News confirms that officials are skeptical of religious exemption requests. It instructs chaplains to note if service members lead with concerns about safety or politics rather than religion and then include those observations in the memo filed with Coast Guard leadership.

“Note any comments made by the member that make it appear they are using the religious exemption as a ruse to avoid the vaccine,” the document says.

It also tells chaplains to have Coast Guard members explain “how they consistently keep the tenets of their faith” and whether they regularly attend worship. If a service member says they’re a member of a particular religion, chaplains are supposed to refer them to comments made by prominent members of that church in favor of COVID-19 vaccines.

The draft document encourages chaplains to ask follow-up questions when service members express concerns about the use of fetal cells in vaccine research or highlight the biblical call to protect their body.

“Ask if they have ever taken Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Benadryl or Claritin, all of which were developed using fetal cells. Ask whether they are also going to be refraining from any of these medications. ... Note response in memo,” it says.

Some critics of the Biden administration’s broader COVID-19 vaccine push have already spoken out against the military’s approach. It’s clear that members of the armed forces will struggle to access both religious and medical exemptions moving forward, argued Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., on the Sept. 10 episode of “The Tom Woods Show.”

“The military probably can force you to take a vaccine,” said Massie, who is sponsoring a bill that would ban military vaccine mandates related to COVID-19.

Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, said military officials seem to be more passionate about vaccine mandate compliance than respecting the Constitution’s religious freedom protections.

“This is a recipe for disaster in terms of morale and readiness,” said Berry, who is a Marine Corps reservist.

During his show Monday night, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson insisted that the military is using vaccine mandates to weed out disloyal members, including some people of faith.

“The point of mandatory vaccination is to identify the sincere Christians in the ranks, the free thinkers, the men with high testosterone levels and anyone else who doesn’t love Joe Biden and make them leave immediately,” he said.

Military officials have pushed back against claims like these and promised not to overlook faith-related objections to vaccines. Requests for religious exemptions will be taken seriously, said Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby last month.

“We take freedom of religion and worship seriously in the military. It’s one of the things that we sign up to defend,” he said.

Military officials, like other government leaders, are subject to federal religious freedom law, which means they can face lawsuits when they unnecessarily interfere with religious practices or beliefs. However, in the past, this hasn’t stopped the military from dismissing or discouraging requests for religious exceptions, as Doug Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, told the Deseret News in 2017.

“Exceptions seem to be at odds with discipline, at odds with tradition, at odds with uniformity,” he said.

In other words, military officials generally prefer to limit exemptions or accommodations. That seems to be one of the goals embedded within the Army’s vaccine directive, Military.com reported.

In other contexts, religious objectors to the COVID-19 vaccine likely find it easier to receive a religious exemption. For example, the Biden administration’s mandate affecting private businesses with more than 100 employees enables people who don’t want to get vaccinated to submit to weekly testing, instead.

Even so, several lawsuits have been filed so far this year over religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. It wouldn’t be surprising if military vaccine mandates were challenged on religious grounds sometime this fall, Berry said, noting that his law firm has heard from between 200 and 300 service members about the military’s approach to religious exemptions.

Already, a soldier and Marine have filed a lawsuit arguing that service members who have already recovered from COVID-19 — and therefore have natural immunity — should be exempt from vaccine mandates, according to the Army Times.

As it stands, all active-duty members of the Army “have until Dec. 15 to be vaccinated, while the Air Force and Space Force (have) issued a Nov. 2 deadline,” Military.com reported, adding that, “Marines and sailors have until Nov. 28.”