FEDERAL JUDGE GRANTS PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION FOR TEN ARMY SERVICE MEMBERS THAT PREVENTS DISCIPLINARY OR SEPARATION MEASURES FOR REFUSING A COVID-19 VACCINE FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS
LUBBOCK, Texas, Dec. 21, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — On December 21, 2022, Texas District Court Judge James Wesley Hendrix granted preliminary injunctive relief to six Army Soldiers and four Army West Point cadets who have been denied their requests for religious accommodation from receiving the currently available COVID-19 vaccines. The Army is now prohibited from taking any disciplinary, punitive or separation measures against any of these service members.
Plaintiffs’ complaint was filed on October 3, 2022 and alleges violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment because the United States Army is systematically denying religious accommodation requests to its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination mandate, while simultaneously granting medical and administrative exemptions.
Judge Hendrix found that Plaintiffs have a likelihood of success on the merits and stated in his opinion:
The parties’ dispute centers on whether the Army can prove that application of the vaccine mandate to these plaintiffs furthers a compelling government interest through the least restrictive means possible. At every turn, however, the evidence before the Court weighs against the Army and in favor of the plaintiffs. For example:
- The Army has continued to operate successfully despite thousands of secular exemptions being granted and despite booster shots not being required for those that were previously vaccinated;
- The plaintiffs have fulfilled their job duties and not caused a single mission failure while unvaccinated;
- Seven plaintiffs received the support of their immediate commanding officers in seeking a religious exemption;
- The defendants’ asserted interest in the plaintiffs’ ability to quickly deploy is undermined by the fact that seven of the ten plaintiffs serve in non-deployable roles;
- The Army’s high vaccination rate—coupled with the plaintiffs’ compliance with safety protocols and low health risk—lessens the asserted, generalized interest in the Army’s health and safety;
- The generic, nearly identical letters denying religious exemptions — which include errors, inaccuracies, and, in one instance, the wrong name — make clear that the Army did not conduct the necessary individualized analysis;
- The Army based its 2021 mandate on CDC data and guidance, but circumstances have changed, including the Army’s near-perfect vaccination rate, the weakening strain of the virus, and the decline in COVID-19-related casualties; and
- Less restrictive means, including temporary exemptions and safety protocols, have been employed successfully for an extended period of time, but the Army provides no evidence why the more restrictive burden—vaccination—is required.
Thus, the record makes clear that, at nearly 100% vaccination, the Army has met its mission, with few exceptions, to vaccinate its force from COVID-19. But the law requires the Army to make a tactical withdrawal from this small field of sincere religious objectors who, despite being unvaccinated, will not undermine its mission. To the contrary, they have served with valor and distinction even as the Army tried to discard them.
Judge Hendrix also noted that:
Our first commander in chief cautioned that “[w]hile we are Contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others.” Letter from George Washington to Colonel Benedict Arnold (Sept. 14, 1775)… And since the Revolutionary War, religion has played a key role in our country’s military. …Our Constitution “obligates Congress, upon creating an Army, to make religion available to soldiers” because the Army must not “deprive the soldier of his right under the Establishment Clause not to have religion inhibited and of his right under the Free Exercise Clause to practice his freely chosen religion.”
Here, the Army does not dispute this history or its ongoing obligation to accommodate its soldiers’ religious freedom, including compliance with RFRA. But it has failed to prove that its ongoing imposition of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which indisputably burdens some soldiers’ sincerely held religious beliefs, serves a compelling interest through the least restrictive means available. As a result, the Army must retreat from imposing its mandate in this particular field and permit religious exemptions to these plaintiffs.
The full decision can be read here. As of today, the Army has only granted 123 requests for religious accommodation while issuing denials to over 1,900 others. Prior to filing this lawsuit, the Army had only granted 46 requests for religious accommodation over the preceding nine-month time period. Meanwhile, the Army has granted over 12,900 medical and administrative accommodations to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Aaron Siri, Wendy Cox, and Elizabeth A. Brehm of Siri & Glimstad; Chris Wiest of Chris Wiest Attorney at Law, PLLC; and Thomas Bruns of Bruns, Connell, Vollmar & Armstrong, LLC.
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SOURCE Siri & Glimstad LLP