Pentagon asks Supreme Court to lift injunction barring vaccine mandate for military personnel, plus developments in other vaccine mandate cases

by | Mar 11, 2022

While the number of COVID-19 cases appear to be declining across the country and restrictions are being lifted, a number of lawsuits over enforcing vaccine mandates against a religious objector continue to work their way through our court systems, including to the highest court in the land. Here is a rundown of recent developments.

The Department of Defense filed an application asking the U.S. Supreme Court to halt, while appeals are pending, a district court’s injunction barring the U.S. Navy from enforcing its vaccine mandate against 35 servicemembers who requested a religious exemption. The case raises questions of religious freedom and the separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches.

The injunction, the Pentagon argues, “usurps the Navy’s authority to decide which servicemembers should be deployed to execute some of the military’s most sensitive and dangerous missions… An injunction that trenches on core Article II prerogatives concerning which military servicemembers are qualified for which missions … has no precedent in our Nation’s history.”

As for the religious freedom claim itself, the government argues that it has met the Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s compelling interest test. Here is an excerpt:

The Navy has an extraordinarily compelling interest in ensuring that the servicemembers who perform [high-risk missions under extreme conditions] are as physically and medically prepared as possible. That includes vaccinating them against COVID-19, which is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals previously declined to lift the district court’s injunction. Justice Samuel Alito has called for a response to the Supreme Court application by March 14.

The Supreme Court in recent weeks declined to grant review in mandate cases involving health care workers in the state of Maine and San Diego school district in California, neither of which offer a religious exemption from vaccine requirements.

Meanwhile, a federal district court in Ohio issued an injunction barring the Air Force from enforcing its mandate against a reservist with religious objections, concluding that the government had not shown that its mandate was the least restrictive means of promoting its interest in light of the exemptions granted on non-religious grounds.

Lastly, via Religion Clause, a federal court in New York upheld as constitutional a procedure used by the state’s court system to determine whether employees are entitled to a religious exemption from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. There, employees who request an exemption are asked follow-up questions to “assess the basis for and sincerity of” the underlying religious belief.