(The Center Square) - A federal district court in Ohio has blocked the Department of Defense from imposing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on all U.S Air Force service members whose religious exemption requests were denied or are pending.
The United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio issued a temporary injunction, granting the request of service members in Doster v. Kendall. The case was initially filed in February by 21 Air Force servicemen on behalf of themselves and those similarly situated, against multiple Air Force superiors.
They're seeking redress for "'the systematic efforts of the Defendants, and those who report to them, to flagrantly violate'" the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by not granting religious accommodation requests to those who oppose receiving the vaccine due to their sincerely held religious beliefs.
The Department of Defense has until July 21 to file a brief arguing why a temporary restraining order shouldn't be extended.
The Air Force sought to have each plaintiff's case tried individually, which the judge rejected and instead granted class status.
Judge Matthew McFarland in his order wrote, "The facts show Defendants [the Air Force] have engaged in a pattern of denying religious accommodation requests."
According to his order, as of June 6, the Air Force received 9,062 religious accommodation requests. It granted 86 and denied 6,343. It then received 3,837 appeals and granted 23 of them.
The judge wrote, "A quick calculation shows that the Air Force, either through initial requests or appeals, have granted approximately 1% of religious accommodation requests between September 1, 2021, when the Air Force vaccine requirement went into effect, and June 6, 2022. Despite the Air Force's apparent policy and practice of denying virtually all religious accommodation requests, the Air Force has granted 729 medical exemption requests and 1,006 administrative exemption requests since implementing its COVID-19 vaccination requirement policy September 1, 2021."
The judges says the class status applies to "All active-duty and active reserve members of the United States Air Force and Space Force, including but not limited to Air Force Academy Cadets, Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) Cadets, Members of the Air Force Reserve Command, and any Airman who has sworn or affirmed the United States Uniformed Services Oath of Office and is currently under command and could be deployed, who: (i) submitted a religious accommodation request to the Air Force from the Air Force's COVID-19 vaccination requirement, where the request was submitted or was pending, from September 1, 2021 to the present; (ii) were confirmed as having had a sincerely held religious belief by or through Air Force Chaplains; and (iii) either had their requested accommodation denied or have not had action on that request."
McFarland also noted that those whose religious exemption requests were denied "face separation from the Air Force and other disciplinary measures" and that a "single injunction would provide relief to the entire class."
"Because Defendants have uniformly maintained a policy of overriding Airmen's religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine, they have acted 'on grounds that apply generally to the class,'" he wrote. "Moreover, the class definition requires that a Chaplain certify that the airman's religious beliefs are sincerely held. Finally, a single injunction would provide the proposed class with the relief they seek from the harm they stand to suffer."
The ruling came after Thomas More Society was handed a win in a separate case by a federal judge in Georgia who granted the first preliminary injunction in the U.S. against the Air Force on behalf of a single Air Force officer. It's now representing additional service members and is waiting on a ruling from the court on its request for a class action certification for a nationwide injunction against the vaccine mandate.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin argued in his directive issued last August that requiring all active duty members and civilian employees to receive the shots was necessary for military readiness. As a result of the mandate, all military service members are required to take the vaccine or face being discharged, pay back scholarships, education, or other training costs, be disciplined or even face court martial.