(Bethany Blankley, The Center Square) If Congress were to rescind the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for U.S. military service members, that still won’t be enough to undo the damage the mandate caused, Orlando-based religious freedom legal defense organization Liberty Counsel argues.
The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday passed a draft version of the $858 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision that repeals Department Secretary Lloyd Austin’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for military members.
If the provision remains, and the bill passes, and it’s signed by President Joe Biden, Austin’s Aug. 24, 2021 mandate would be repealed within 30 days of the bill going into effect.
According to the draft language, “Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall rescind the mandate that members of the Armed Forces be vaccinated against COVID-19 pursuant to the memorandum dated August 24, 2021, regarding ‘Mandatory Coronavirus Disease 2019 Vaccination of Department of Defense Service Members.’”
Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman, Mat Staver, said, “Repealing the COVID shot mandate for military members is a good step in the right direction, but it is not enough. Liberty Counsel will continue to fight to permanently enjoin the Department of Defense from violating service members’ religious freedom rights.”
On Dec. 14, Liberty Counsel is presenting oral arguments at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of a lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Marines and a Navy Commander of a warship. In January 2023, it’s returning to court seeking to convert the classwide preliminary injunction to a permanent injunction for the U.S. Marines.
Congress repealing the mandate isn’t enough to undo the damage caused to service members whose religious accommodation requests (RARs) were denied, Liberty Counsel maintains. More importantly, repealing the mandate won’t prevent the Department of Defense from implementing a similar type of mandate in the future or address the problem of its widespread denial of RARs.
Regardless of what Congress passes, Liberty Counsel says it will continue pursuing permanent injunctions against the DOD’s “flawed religious accommodation policy for immunizations, to prevent it from reinstituting a similar COVID-19 shot mandate, and to undo the adverse treatment against service members who filed religious accommodation requests.”
Prior to Austin issuing his COVID-19 vaccine mandate last August, the DOD issued an RAR policy on immunization. The military branches’ widespread denial of RARs filed by service members, district judges and the inspector general of the DOD found, violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), raising a bigger problem, Liberty Counsel notes.
Under RFRA, the military is required to consider each RAR filed individually, which judges found all branches didn’t do.
“Instead, the military issues generalized statements to justify the mandate,” Liberty Counsel argues. “Since this RAR policy applies to all immunizations, not just COVID-19, the policy must be enjoined and the DOD must comply with RFRA.”
Liberty Counsel is pursuing its lawsuits, Staver says, because “the military must comply with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
Other rights must also be wronged, he argues: “all service members who have been punished, demoted, and discharged must be reinstated and their records cleared. Our military members who love God and America have been horribly abused and they must be honored again.”
Earlier this year, in its case, Navy SEAL 1 v. Austin, the group filed a declaration that revealed “shocking evidence of the abuse, intimidation and retaliation military members are facing over the Biden shot mandate,” including at least two service members who committed suicide.
“These military members are suffering mental anguish and great harm for standing up for their sincerely held religious convictions,” Staver said at the time. “Others who have taken the shots are being physically injured. Joe Biden’s shot mandate is inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on America’s finest members of the military. This abuse must end.”