Lawsuit filed on behalf of Navy SEALs facing intimidation for seeking religious COVID-19 vaccine exemptions

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Military reportedly unlikely to approve Navy SEALs’ religious exemption requests on vaccine mandate

First Liberty Institute general counsel Mike Berry explained his sources shed doubt on the likelihood of exemption approval.

EXCLUSIVE: A federal lawsuit is being filed on behalf of dozens of U.S. Navy SEALs seeking religious exemptions from the Defense Department’s (DOD) vaccination mandate, claiming the military is infringing upon service members’ First Amendment freedoms and intimidating them into getting vaccinated against COVID-19. 

First Liberty Institute is filing a lawsuit Tuesday representing approximately 40 active-duty SEALs and three reservists, claiming the military is violating their constitutional rights. According to the filing, exclusively obtained by Fox News, the SEALs represented are all members of various denominations within the Christian faith and are objecting to the vaccine mandate based on “their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Fox News previously reported that for some SEALs seeking religious exemptions to the mandate, the process is nearly impossible to successfully complete to get a waiver. In addition, a series of new directives by the Navy are promising severe punishment, including court-martial (criminal) prosecution, revocation of special operator status, drastic pay cuts and a ban on travel for SEALs who do not comply with the mandate by the end of November. 

Members of the Special Operations Team of the Cypriot National Guard and U.S. Navy SEALs participate in a joint military training in Limassol, Cyprus, September 10, 2021. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

A source previously revealed to Fox News that a Navy officer told a SEAL planning to seek a religious exemption that he would have to give up his Special Warfare pin, also known as a “Trident.” If a SEAL loses the privilege of wearing a Trident, he or she is removed from the SEAL community completely and sent back to be a regular sailor, despite in some cases, years of hard earned special operator status. The lawsuit cites other examples of SEALs who have been threatened with that same punishment.

Michael Berry, First Liberty Institute’s general counsel and Lt. Col. U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, told Fox News that the vaccine mandate is harmful to the nation’s national security.

“After all the sacrifices these elite warriors made to defend our freedoms, the Navy is now threatening their careers, families, and finances. It’s appalling and it has to stop before any more harm is done to our national security.”

In this Dec. 15, 2016, photo, provided by the U.S. Navy, the Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) departs Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for sea trials following a maintenance availability. (Thiep Van Nguyen II/U.S. Navy via AP)

“Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values,” continued Berry.

The lawsuit focuses on the denial of religious exemptions by the military, specifically on why it violates the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). First Liberty argues that its SEAL clients are being designated as “non-deployable” for simply requesting a religious accommodation. 

The lawsuit states that the Navy leadership’s “threat of non-deployability substantially pressures Plaintiffs to take an action (receiving a COVID-19 vaccine) that would violate their religious beliefs,” which violates SEALs’ rights under RFRA to the free exercise of religion.

The SEALs represented in the lawsuit state that their religious beliefs against abortion do not allow them to receive medications “tested or produced using aborted fetal cell lines.” In addition, some SEALs, especially in their capacity as the military’s most elite fighting force, hold the belief that the “human body is God’s temple,” and as such, they carefully monitor everything that they take into their bodies and are “compelled to avoid anything that adversely alters or may modify their bodies’ natural functions in a manner not designed by God.” The vaccine uses mRNA technology, which produces a spike in protein within human cells that would not normally be produced, leading to the reason behind their objection. 

Younger SEALs in particular are concerned with the higher risk of myocarditis, which is the potentially fatal inflammation of heart muscles that some younger males have experienced after receiving the vaccine. 

Despite each individual reason for religious exemption, not a single plaintiff has received an approved religious accommodation request, and many have had their requests denied, according to First Liberty. Unlike religious requests, service members have been granted medical exemptions from the mandate.

A member of the Navy Ceremonial Guard stands for the national anthem during a ceremony for National POW/MIA Recognition Day. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
(Kevin Dietsch)

According to the suit, multiple SEALs received a formal warning that states that those individuals “who refuse to receive the COVID-19 vaccine based solely on personal or religious beliefs will be disqualified from [special operator] duty (unless the disqualification is separately waived by BUMED). This will affect deployment and special pays. This provision does not pertain to medical contraindications or allergies to vaccine administration.'”

DOD spokesperson Lt. Cdr. Patricia Kreuzberger previously told Fox News that although she could not speak specifically on matters affecting the SEALs, service members are entitled to seek religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

“Mandatory vaccination for our servicemembers is a lawful order that maximizes our operational effectiveness. To be world-wide deployable, Naval personnel must be medically qualified which includes being up-to-date on required vaccinations. Servicemembers are entitled to seek religious exemptions and those requests will be considered in keeping with current Navy policy.”

On Thursday, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said during a panel at the Aspen Security Forum that the Navy is at a 99.4% vaccination rate for active-duty service members.

DOD’s official policy is that all active-duty service members must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 28 and reserve service members by Dec. 28.

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