Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Court Defers Ruling On Military's Actions On Religious Exemption Requests From Vaccine Mandate

In Seal I v. Biden, (MD FL, Nov. 22, 2021), a Florida federal district court, after a lengthy discussion of free exercise protection under the 1st Amendment and RFRA, deferred until at least Jan. 7, 2022, ruling on a motion for a preliminary injunction sought by service members seeking religious exemptions from the federal government's COVID vaccine mandate for members of the military. According to the court:

[P]laintiffs claim the regulations — governing in each respective branch the availability of a religious exemption from the COVID vaccine and purporting to comply with the demands of RFRA — in reality disguise an unlawful and pervasive policy of the Secretary of Defense and each branch of the armed forces to deny individual consideration of each claim for a religious exemption, to instead “deny them all,” and to punish, possibly by discharge, without exemption and without accommodation, those who assert a sincere religious objection and accordingly refuse the vaccine....

[T]he data produced by the defendants show that more than 16,643 requests for a religious exemption pend. The military has granted no exemptions but has denied hundreds. This disparity, although susceptible to a benign explanation is, as well, susceptible to an explanation actionable and remediable under RFRA.

The court ordered each branch of the armed forces, beginning Jan. 7, 2022, to file bi-weekly reports on the number of exemption requests and the number granted, as well as on the number of service members court martialed after the denial of a religious exemption. Liberty Counsel issued a press release announcing the decision.