Federal Judge Issues Injunction Over Military COVID Vaccine Mandate Arguing it Violates Religious Freedom

First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group, say they filed a federal lawsuit and motion for preliminary injunction on behalf of “dozens” of U.S. Navy SEALs and other Naval Special Warfare personnel, who represent Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity.

O’Connor notes that the Navy has granted exemptions for non-religious reasons, such as allergies to vaccines.
O’Connor notes that the Navy has granted exemptions for non-religious reasons, such as allergies to vaccines. (photo: Steve Sanchez / Shutterstock)

FORT WORTH, Texas — A federal judge on Monday issued a preliminary injunction against the Biden administration and the Department of Defense over their apparent refusal to grant several Christian Navy SEALS religious accommodations to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued the injunction, which prevents the Department of Defense from taking “any adverse action” against the plaintiffs in the case because of requests for religious accommodation, on Jan. 3. 

In August 2021, the Pentagon announced that all service members would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19. In advance of that announcement, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services said that receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States was morally permissible, and that a vaccine mandate “seems prudent” and would be “very similar” to mandates already enforced in the military.

First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group, say they filed a federal lawsuit and motion for preliminary injunction on behalf of “dozens” of U.S. Navy SEALs and other Naval Special Warfare personnel, who represent Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity. 

First Liberty says the religious objections that the plaintiffs raised fell into four categories; opposition to abortion and the use of aborted fetal cell lines in opposition to abortion and the use of aborted fetal cell lines in development of the vaccine; belief that modifying one’s body is an afront to the creator; direct, divine instruction not to receive the vaccine; and opposition to injecting trace amounts of animal cells into one’s body.

The requests made have been denied, O’Connor wrote in his ruling, and some of the plaintiffs report mistreatment as a result of asking for a religious exemption. 

O’Connor notes that the Navy has granted exemptions for non-religious reasons, such as allergies to vaccines. 

“The Navy provides a religious accommodation process, but by all accounts, it is theater,” the judge wrote. “The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory. It merely rubber stamps each denial. The Navy servicemembers in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”

Archbishop Broglio has encouraged Catholics to follow the guidance of the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, both of whom have stated that it is morally permissible to receive the COVID-19 vaccinations currently available in the United States, even ones with a remote connection to aborted fetal tissue. 

Archbishop Timothy Broglio has also said that service members should not be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine against their consciences. 

“The denial of religious accommodations, or punitive or adverse personnel actions taken against those who raise earnest, conscience-based objections, would be contrary to federal law and morally reprehensible,” Archbishop Broglio said in October. 

Catholic bishops across the country have issued varying guidance for Catholics wishing to seek conscientious objections to COVID-19 mandates. A few have expressed explicit support for Catholics wishing to seek exemptions; some have said that Catholics may seek exemptions, but must make the case for their own conscience without the involvement of clergy; and some have stated that Catholic teaching lacks a basis to reject vaccination mandates.  

The National Catholic Bioethics Center, a think tank that provides guidance on human dignity in health care and medical research, has been vocal about its opposition to mandatory immunization for COVID-19. While acknowledging that reception of COVID-19 vaccines is morally permissible, the center has maintained support for the rights of Catholics to refuse the vaccines because of conscience-based concerns.

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