A federal judge in Georgia has temporarily blocked the U.S. military from enforcing its Covid-19 vaccination mandate against an Air Force officer seeking a religious exemption.
The order was handed down a month after the unnamed officer, who is a Christian, filed a lawsuit alleging that the mandate violates her religious beliefs.
The suit says the officer “sincerely believes that receiving a vaccine that was derived from or tested on aborted fetal tissue in its development would violate her conscience and is contrary to her faith.” It goes on to note that she believes that to inject her body with a “novel substance of unknown long-term effects” would violate her belief that her “body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.”
In his ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Tilman E. Self III said the military did not offer much in response to the officer’s arguments that the vaccination requirement substantially burdens her free exercise of religion.
“And, how could they?” he wrote. “Very few scenarios paint a bleaker picture than giving up your livelihood in order to follow your religious beliefs.”
Self noted that the Air Force has rejected 99.76 percent of all religious accommodation requests. It had denied all of them up until the last two weeks, when it approved nine, he said.
“With such a marked record disfavoring religious accommodation requests, the Court easily finds that the Air Force’s process to protect religious rights is both illusory and insincere,” he wrote. “In short, it’s just ‘theater.’”
“All Americans, especially the Court, want our country to maintain a military force that is powerful enough to thoroughly destroy any enemy who dares to challenge it,” Self added later in his written decision, which applies only to the officer. “However, we also want a military force strong enough to respect and protect its service members’ constitutional and statutory religious rights. This ruling ensures our armed services continue to accomplish both.”
A spokesperson said in a statement that the Air Force is “aware of the preliminary injunction and will abide by the Court’s Order until the matter is legally resolved.”
The officer, who contracted the coronavirus in December 2020 and has since tested positive for antibodies twice, is stationed at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, her lawsuit says.
The Air Force issued a final denial of her request for religious accommodation in December. Her lawsuit names Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Air Force Surgeon General Robert Miller.
Stephen Crampton, a lawyer for the officer, cheered the ruling.
“This is a great victory for religious freedom,” said Crampton, of the Thomas More Society, a national not-for-profit law firm that describes its mission as “restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty.”
“It is disgraceful how the military in general has disrespected fundamental First Amendment rights,” he added.