On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Department of Defense could not punish a group of Navy SEALs along with other special forces members who, for religious reasons, refused the COVID-19 vaccine.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had ordered all military personnel to receive the vaccine in August of last year.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor made the decision in response to a lawsuit that was filed on behalf of 35 special force members. He issued a preliminary injunction to block the Navy and the Defense Department from enforcing the federal mandate after he said the Navy had not granted a single religious exemption to the vaccine requirement so far. O’Connor was appointed to the federal bench in Texas by former President George W. Bush.
“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,” O’Connor wrote in his 26-page decision.
The service members who filed the suit had faced a variety of discipline actions over their refusal of the vaccine. O’Connor’s ruling has been hailed a victory by the First Liberty Institute, a legal organization dedicated to defending U.S. religious freedoms, which represented the service members as plaintiffs.
“Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values,” said the institute’s general counsel, Mike Berry, in a written statement.
In a statement late on Sunday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he tested positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated and boosted. “I tested positive this morning for COVID-19. I requested the test today after exhibiting symptoms while at home on leave,” he said. “My symptoms are mild, and I am following my physician’s directions.”