On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a previous ruling and decided that the Air Force may not punish or fire service members for not getting vaccinated against COVID-19 if they have a religious objection.
The case, Doster v. Kendall, involved several Air Force service members who had rejected the COVID-19 vaccine for religious purposes. The most recent decision is part of a continuing class action lawsuit.
In the opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Murphy pointed out that almost 10,000 service members have asked for a religious exemption from the Air Force’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but the Air Force has only given around 135 of those petitions “and only to those already planning to leave the service.” However, the Air Force has “granted thousands of other exemptions for medical reasons […] or administrative reasons.”
Eighteen plaintiffs, comprised of both reservist and active duty service members, filed the lawsuit against Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall.
The lawsuit stated that the mandate “substantially burdens their religious exercise in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).”
“Under RFRA, the Air Force wrongly relied on its ‘broadly formulated’ reasons for the vaccine mandate to deny specific exemptions to the Plaintiffs, especially since it has granted secular exemptions to their colleagues,” the opinion noted.
Judge Murphy discussed the “military readiness” argument, saying that while the Air Force might have a “compelling interest” to mandate that its 501,000 members get the vaccine, “[i]t has also largely achieved this general interest, as evidenced by its ability to vaccinate over 97% of its force.”
However, under RFRA, the Air Force has to demonstrate “that it has a compelling interest in refusing a ‘specific’ exemption… And just because it might have a compelling interest in the abstract does not mean that it has one ‘in each marginal percentage point by which’ it achieves this abstract interest,” the judge added.
A lower district court had issued an injunction that prohibited the Air Force from punishing certain service members who didn’t get the vaccine and “then certified a class of thousands of similar service members and extended this injunction to the class.”
The previous decision of the district court did not act entirely against the apparent interests of the Air Force. The district court “narrowed the scope of its injunction to permit the Air Force to refuse to enlist or commission new service members who refuse to take a COVID-19 vaccine,” the opinion noted.
In addition, as the opinion pointed out, “its injunction did not interfere with the Air Force’s operational decisions over the Plaintiffs’ duties.”
Lawyer Chris Wiest argued the case for the service members, and said, “[m]y clients are extraordinarily pleased with this decision.”
”We established, and the Court found, a substantial basis of systemic discrimination towards religious believers. This decision will protect the liberty and livelihood of approximately 10,000 class members, all of whom have undertaken to protect our country. The least we can do is extend to them the rights that they protect for all of us,” he stated.
Following the release of the opinion, an Air Force spokesperson told Fox News Digital that “[t]he Department of the Air Force is complying with a court order to pause all disciplinary and adverse actions for members refusing the COVID-19 vaccine who submitted a timely religious accommodation request and fall within the definition of the court’s certified class.”