WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asked the Supreme Court on Monday to block part of a lower court order that prevents the Navy from restricting the deployment of Navy SEALs who refuse to get a Covid vaccine.
The order “usurps the Navy’s authority to decide when servicemembers should be deployed to execute some of the military’s most sensitive and dangerous missions,” Austin said in the emergency court filing.
A federal judge in Texas ruled in early January that the Navy must allow members of the elite special operations community to opt out of the vaccine requirement if they have religious objections. His order also forbids their commanders from making any changes to their military assignments based on their refusal to be vaccinated. It’s the second part of the order that Austin asked the Supreme Court to block.
Austin said the order requires the Navy “to assign and deploy them without regard to their lack of vaccinations, notwithstanding military leaders’ judgment that doing so poses intolerable risks to safety and mission success.”
The Navy has already sent one member of a SEAL team to a mission on a submarine, against the wishes of commanders, Austin said. He called the lower court order an “extraordinary and unprecedented intrusion into core military affairs” that has no precedent in American history.
Adm. William K. Lescher, vice chief of naval operations, has concluded that the illness of even one member of a small SEAL team due to Covid-19 could compromise the mission, according to court filings.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor issued the order on Jan. 3 in a lawsuit brought by 35 Navy seals who said the mandatory vaccination policy violated their religious freedom.
“The Navy provides a religious accommodation process, but by all accounts, it is theater," O’Connor wrote. "The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory. It merely rubber stamps each denial.”
On Feb. 28, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to block O’Connor’s order, leading to Monday’s appeal by the government.
The Supreme Court called for a response from lawyers for the SEALs by March 14.