Vaccine mandate updates: Federal court halts mandate against Navy personnel seeking religious exemption, and more

by | Jan 13, 2022

Although the U.S. Navy offers a procedure to request a religious accommodation from the Biden administration’s rule requiring all servicemembers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, “it is theater,” according to a federal court in Texas in a case brought by 35 plaintiffs. The court halted enforcement of the mandate against the plaintiffs after concluding that the Navy’s process predetermined a denial.

The Navy uses a fifty-step process to adjudicate religious accommodation requests. Under the standard operating procedures for the process, the first fifteen steps require an administrator to update a prepared disapproval template with the requester’s name and rank. In essence, the Plaintiffs’ requests are denied the moment they begin. That prepared letter is then sent to seven offices for review. After those offices review the disapproval letter, the administrator packages the letter with other religious accommodation requests for final signature. The administrator then prepares an internal memo to Vice Admiral John Nowell, asking him to “sign . . . letters disapproving immunization waiver requests based on sincerely held religious beliefs.”


Then, at step thirty-five of the process, the administrator is told—for the first time—to read through the religious accommodation request. At that point, the disapproval letter has already been written, the religious accommodation request and related documents has already been reviewed by several offices, the disapproval has already been packaged with similar requests, and an internal memo has already been drafted requesting that Vice Admiral Nowell disapprove the religious accommodation request…

The court further determined that the compelling interest the state may have in enforcing the rule against plaintiffs is undermined by the fact that a large majority (99.4%) of military personnel are vaccinated, as well as because military personnel were able to carry out their duties successfully during the pandemic prior to the availability of a vaccine.

You can read the opinion here. The decision runs against the general trend of court decisions which have largely upheld vaccine requirements against claims brought by religious objectors. Here, the court focused on the specific procedure employed by the Navy in considering exemption requests.

Meanwhile, a federal court in Rhode Island has upheld that state’s requirement that all health care workers receive the vaccine despite there being no provision for a religious exemption. The court explained: “…whether a religious accommodation should be included in an otherwise neutral law… the Supreme Court has held, is for the political branches to decide and not a court…” You can read that opinion here.

Lastly, a federal court in Michigan declined to issue an injunction requested by an employee about to be terminated from his job for failing to comply with his employer’s vaccination requirement after his request for a religious accommodation was denied. Because the employer is private and not a government entity, the court emphasized, the plaintiff cannot establish that he will suffer irreparable harm without an injunction.  The opinion is here.