Twenty-six United States Navy SEALs and nine other Navy special forces members say the Navy’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy violates constitutionally protected religious liberty and has led to threats, coercion and retaliation against the service members for merely requesting religious exemptions, according to a federal lawsuit.
“After all these elite warriors have done to defend our freedoms, the Navy is now threatening their careers, families, and finances,” said Michael Berry, general counsel for the First Liberty Institute, a public-interest law firm that represents the service members. “It’s appalling and it has to stop before any more harm is done to our national security.”
The suit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Fort Worth on behalf of 26 SEALs, five special warfare combatant craft crewmen, three Navy divers and a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician. The plaintiffs, who were identified by pseudonyms for security reasons, are listed as Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox. They expressed a variety of religious objections to the COVID vaccines, including ties to abortion-derived cell lines and the potential the shots could cause harm or alter the way God designed the body to perform.
The suit alleges the vaccine mandates and how they are being carried out violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its Free Exercise Clause, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and official policies of the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy. The suit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions against the mandates, declaration that the policies violated plaintiffs’ religious rights, and monetary damages. Defendants include President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, the U.S. Department of Defense and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro.
“The fact that the government has not granted a single religious exemption from the vaccine mandate shows that the Biden administration does not care about religious freedom,” said Berry, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served for three years in Afghanistan. “Instead, this appears to be an attempted ideological purge. Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values.”
The Navy has not yet responded to the lawsuit or its claims.
Active-duty vaccination required by Nov. 28
Based on direction from President Biden, Secretary Austin issued a vaccine mandate Aug. 24 for all active-duty and reserve service members. On Aug. 30, Secretary Del Toro issued a Navy policy requiring full vaccination by Nov. 28 for active-duty and Dec. 28 for reserves. Those who don’t comply are subject to immediate consequences that could include criminal prosecution by court martial, involuntary separation, removal from promotion lists, loss of special pay, being placed in non-deployable status and repaying the military’s cost to train them, among others, the suit said.
Biden also issued a vaccine mandate for federal workers and contractors, and an emergency standard through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that compels employers with 100 or more staff to ensure employees are fully vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID testing. All of the federal mandates are being challenged in court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a temporary stay of the OSHA vaccine mandate on Nov. 6. The Texas Navy lawsuit filed Tuesday is similar to a complaint filed Oct. 6 in U.S. District Court in Pensacola, Fla., and a federal suit filed Oct. 15 in Tampa.
Despite numerous Department of Defense and Navy department policies that allow for accommodation of religious beliefs—including from vaccines—the plaintiffs were denied religious exemption, told their requests would be denied and/or pressured to take the shots against their religious beliefs, the suit stated. It cited a Navy spokesman who said no religious exemptions from vaccines were approved in the past seven years.
Some of the plaintiffs said they received a written warning that special operations forces who refuse the COVID vaccine “based solely on personal or religious beliefs” would be classified as “medically disqualified” and not deployable. Another warning said those who object based on religion “will be disqualified” from special-operations duty. When one plaintiff told his commander he planned to request a religious exemption, “he was ordered to remove his special warfare device pin from his uniform,” the suit said, while other plaintiffs “have been threatened with the same adverse treatment.”
Religious objections to COVID vaccines
Some of the plaintiffs based their exemption requests on the use of abortion-derived stem cell lines in some phase of research, development, production or testing of the three vaccines available under U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency-use authorization. Other plaintiffs said they don’t want to be injected with something they believe is potentially harmful and alters how God designed the body to function — specifically the messenger RNA in COVID shots that induces cells in the body to produce spike proteins they would not otherwise make.
The litigation cited what it called a statistically significant number of adverse reactions to the vaccines, “including myocarditis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the heart muscles, and pericarditis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the heart tissue.” It cited expert testimony by Lt. Col. Theresa Long, M.D., a U.S. Army aerospace medicine specialist and flight surgeon with the 1st Aviation Brigade. Doctor Long said in another lawsuit that evidence suggests “all persons who have received a COVID-19 vaccine are damaged in their cardiovascular system in an irreparable and irrevocable manner.” In her affidavit, Dr. Long said the currently available vaccines “are more risky, harmful and dangerous than having no vaccine at all, whether a person is COVID recovered or facing a COVID infection.”
Long testified Nov. 2 under federal whistleblower protection at a COVID vaccine hearing held by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. She said command retaliated against her after she voiced concerns about grounding three fully vaccinated pilots in one day because of vaccine injuries, including pericarditis.
Doctor Long described attending an Army senior medicine leadership course in May 2021 and questioning Army brass about the vaccines. “We only lost 12 active-duty soldiers to COVID, yet we’re going to risk the health of the entire fighting force on a vaccine we only have two months of safety data on?” she said she asked the group. “The response was, ‘You’re damned right, colonel, and you’re going to get every soldier you can to take the vaccine so I can get enough data points to determine if the vaccine is safe.’ ”
Navy personnel participating in COVID vaccine trials are exempt from the shot mandate, the suit said, regardless of whether they get the vaccine or a placebo. Some personnel have already been granted medical exemptions. Allowing those two kinds of waivers while denying religious accommodation shows the defendants “acted in a manner that is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion,” the suit said.
Another vaccine-related suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Galveston, Texas, on behalf of 11 federal employees who recovered from COVID and have antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Filed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the New Civil Liberties Alliance, the suit seeks preliminary and final injunctions barring the government from mandating federal employees get the vaccine. Named in the suit are Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and nearly two dozen other officials involved in the Biden administration’s COVID response.
Between March 17 and late October, 107 COVID vaccine lawsuits were filed in the U.S., according to Fisher Phillips, a nationwide labor and employment law firm. About half were filed in federal court. Another 892 lawsuits involve retaliation or whistleblower issues, most commonly in the health-care industry, according to the firm’s litigation tracker. Including all types of COVID litigation—wrongful termination, remote-employment disputes, wrongful death claims, etc.—there have been 3,860 COVID legal cases filed since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, the law firm reported.
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