A U.S. federal appeals court has upheld a lower court judge’s injunction prohibiting the U.S. Air Force from penalizing and firing airmen who have religious objections to receiving the COVID-19 shots.
Eighteen members of the U.S. Air Force sued over the department’s mandate requiring all servicemembers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
In the opinion issued November 29, 2022, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the lower court order which “barred the Air Force from disciplining [airmen] for failing to take a vaccine.”
The three judges that issued the ruling included Judge Raymond Kethledge, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, and Trump-appointed Judges John Bush and Eric Murphy, the latter of which authored the court’s opinion.
Judge Murphy wrote that the Air Force had ordered all 500,000 members of its branch to receive the vaccine, including the 10,000 members who have requested religious exemptions from the mandate.
To date, the Air Force has only granted 135 of those 10,000 requests (or 1.35%), and all of those were only to those Airmen who were planning to separate from the branch.
“Yet [the Air Force] has granted thousands of other exemptions for medical reasons (such as a pregnancy or allergy) or administrative reasons (such as a looming retirement),” Judge Murphy wrote.
“The basic facts are undisputed,” the judge added. “The Air Force has denied all religious-exemption requests unless a service member has agreed to leave within a certain time, and it has granted far more medical and administrative exemptions. Either the Air Force can justify these policies or it cannot.”
Attorney Chris Wiest argued the case on behalf of the 18 servicemembers.
“My clients are extraordinarily pleased with this decision,” Wiest said in a statement following the ruling. “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.”
The case is Hunter Doster et al., v. Hon. Frank Kendall.
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