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Judge grants relief to Navy SEALs who refused coronavirus vaccine, sued Biden administration

President Biden tours the coronavirus vaccine center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Jan. 29, 2021. (Alex Brandon/AP)

A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction on Monday blocking the Defense Department from taking action against a group of 35 Navy sailors who had refused to get a coronavirus vaccine, raising questions on how it might shape the Pentagon’s requirement that all U.S. troops get vaccinated.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor found that the pandemic “provides the government with no license to abrogate” the freedoms that any American has, and that the service members had a right to avoid getting a vaccination on religious grounds.

“This Court does not make light of COVID-19′s impact on the military. Collectively, our armed forces have lost over 80 lives to COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic,” O’Connor wrote Monday in a 26-page order.

But the judge added that the “loss of religious liberties outweighs any forthcoming harm to the Navy” and that “even the direst circumstances cannot justify the loss of constitutional rights.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday night that defense officials were aware of the injunction and reviewing it.

In 2020, then-candidate Joe Biden left open the possibility of targeted coronavirus vaccine requirements. Now, Biden is encouraging mandates for many workers. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The troops — a group that included Navy SEALs and other members of Naval Special Warfare Command — filed suit against President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and the Defense Department to challenge the Navy’s vaccination requirement in November. The troops cited Christian beliefs that they should not take a vaccine developed from aborted fetal cell lines and saw a modification of their bodies as an “affront to their Creator.” Many Christians have sought vaccination, with Pope Francis urging Catholics to do so on humanitarian grounds.

The suit was filed by First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit that specializes in defending religious liberty. Michael Berry, a lawyer for the institute, said in a phone interview that the ruling “sends a clear message to the Biden administration, to the Pentagon and to the Navy that our service members do not give up their religious freedom when they serve their country.”

Should the Biden administration appeal the decision, Berry said, “we will defend this as far as it needs to go.”

O’Connor noted that the Navy has a process by which service members can seek a religious accommodation to avoid vaccination but said that “by all accounts, it is theater.” Twenty-nine of the 35 troops represented in the lawsuit had seen their requests to avoid the vaccine denied, with many appealing, his ruling said.

“The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory,” O’Connor wrote. “It merely rubber stamps each denial.”

The injunction comes after nearly all of the more than 1 million active-duty U.S. service members received at least one coronavirus vaccination, and as the Defense Department has begun to end the military careers of those who do not. The Air Force and Marine Corps began administratively separating service members last month, while the Navy and Army were expected to begin doing so this month.

The Defense Department has seen numerous challenges since Austin mandated the vaccine in August, citing concerns about how the virus could affect the military’s readiness. The Pentagon has required other vaccinations for years, a point that senior defense officials have made repeatedly.