(Bethany Blankley, The Center Square) The Undersecretary of the Navy “misrepresented material facts” in his testimony given at a congressional hearing, lawyers representing Navy and Marine service members disciplined for not getting the COVID-19 vaccines over religious objections told The Center Square.
His testimony under oath contradicted a Department of Defense Inspector General report that said the Navy was violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, said. A federal judge last year chastised the DOD and Marine Corps for refusing to grant religious accommodation requests, adding it was the court’s responsibility to uphold the law when generals won’t.
At a hearing before the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, Gaetz asked Erik Raven, undersecretary and Chief Operating Officer and Chief Management Officer of the Navy, “Did the Navy send out form letters in response to people’s requests for religious exemptions” from the DOD vaccine mandate.
Raven replied, “I’d have to get back to you on that.”
“This is really important,” Gaetz said. “The law requires an individual assessment of people’s request for a religious exemption, right?”
Raven answered, “The process we followed there was individualized review at multiple levels.”
“You believe there was individualized review?” Gaetz asked.
“Yes sir,” Raven said.
“Well the Inspector General disagrees with you,” he said, referring to a report that RARs weren’t individually reviewed and the average amount of time each was considered was 12 minutes.
“Does 12 minutes seem like a sufficient amount of time to make an individualized on someone’s deeply held religious basis for an exemption?” Gaetz asked.
Raven said the Navy went through multiple reviews going up to Marine Corps headquarters that “resulted in 10 hours of review” in many cases.
However, the DOD-IG report found “a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by federal law and DoD and Military Service policies.”
Blanket denial memorandums were given to service members from the Air Force and the Navy, the report found, which didn’t “reflect an individualized analysis demonstrating that the Senior Military Official considered the full range of facts and circumstances relevant to the particular religious accommodation request.” Instead, they included “similar, if not identical, wording.”
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, who’s representing Navy and Marine service members who faced repercussions for not getting vaccines, told The Center Square, “The total lack of candor and the misrepresentation of material facts is disturbing. The testimony presented to the committee is contradicted by the Inspector General’s report and the documents and sworn testimony presented in our ongoing litigation.”
Last September, Judge Steven Merryday of the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida Tampa Division granted a classwide preliminary injunction for active and reserve duty Marines whose RARs were denied. Merryday said, “the record reveals the substantial likelihood of a systemic failure by the Marine Corps to discharge the obligations established by RFRA.”
In an earlier ruling, Merryday addressed the fact that Marines had been charged additional monthly rent for noncompliance and given two days’ notice to be discharged and ordered to leave their military housing, which he said “suggests retribution and retaliation.”
He also maintains that military leaders must comply with RFRA, saying it applies to “everyone from the President to a park ranger … from the Chief Justice of the United States to a probation officer … from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to a military recruiter – even if they don’t like it and even if they don’t agree with it. The Free Exercise Clause and RFRA are the law of the land.”
Gaetz also asked DOD Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros more than once if there was a plan “to reinstate the roughly 8,600 service members across active duty, reserves and the guard back to their point of service?”
Cisneros replied, “The policy is the same that it’s always been. Service members are discharged and they want to come back into the service they can apply.”
“So the DOD has no active plan to do proactive outreach to these individuals and get them back into the military?” Gaetz asked. Cisneros replied, “Our plan is the same as it’s always been,” which Gaetz said meant “no plan.”
Staver told The Center Square, “The Department of Defense and high-ranking military brass act as though they are above the law. They appear to have little to no concern for the truth, the law, and for the dedicated service members. The arrogant, lawless, and abusive actions are the reason retention and recruitment has dropped to an alarming rate. There needs to be a complete transformation of the system beginning with the Secretary of Defense and the top Pentagon brass.”
Because the National Defense Authorization Act only required the DOD to rescind the vaccine mandate, lawsuits are ongoing over alleged RFRA violations.