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GOP bill seeks to reinstate military members discharged over COVID-19 vaccination status

United State capitol in Washington, D.C. © iStock - Muni Yogeshwaran
Bethany Blankley

(The Center Square) – Nineteen Republican U.S. senators introduced a bill that would require the U.S. Department of Defense to offer reinstatement to service members who were fired over the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined by his colleagues, filed an amended bill to one he filed last legislative session, which would have allowed service members to opt out of the vaccine mandate without facing repercussion. The bill went nowhere.

Several provisions to protect service members in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2023 were weakened by Democratic leadership prior to the bill being passed last year and signed into law by the president, Cruz said, prompting him to file this new bill.

The Allowing Military Exemptions, Recognizing Individual Concerns About New Shots (AMERICANS) Act of 2023 was filed January 24. U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., filed a companion bill in the House.

“Our military continues to feel the effects of the Biden administration’s reckless, misguided, and now-prohibited vaccine mandates,” Cruz said. “I’m glad that we were able to remove the COVID-19 vaccine mandate last Congress, but there is more work to do. The AMERICANS Act would correct the wrongs done to unvaccinated service members who were discharged for exercising their conscience.”

Bishop said, “While last year’s NDAA directed that SECDEF rescind the DOD's authoritarian COVID vaccine mandate, it didn’t prohibit the DOD from issuing a similar mandate in the future. The bill also didn’t provide any meaningful remedies for servicemembers who were kicked out due to the mandate. This is completely unacceptable. Sen. Cruz and my bill, the AMERICANS Act, will close these glaring loopholes and bring justice to military members who were purged by Secretary [Lloyd] Austin's egregious vaccine mandate.”

The AMERICANS Act would prohibit the Defense secretary from issuing any replacement COVID-19 vaccine mandates without Congressional approval. It also would require the Department of Defense to reinstate any service member separated solely for COVID-19 vaccine status who wants to return to service, to credit all service members with the time of involuntary separation for retirement pay calculations, restore their rank if they were demoted, and compensate them for any pay and benefits lost due to demotions.

It also would require “general” discharges to be changed to “honorable” and for any records with adverse actions based solely on COVID-19 vaccine status, regardless of whether the service member previously sought an accommodation, to be expunged.

It also would require the DOD to provide a COVID-19 vaccine exemption process for service members “with natural immunity, a relevant underlying health condition, or a sincerely held religious belief inconsistent with being vaccinated.”

From August 2021 to December 2022, thousands of service members were discharged for noncompliance with the mandate and whose religious accommodation requests (RARs) were denied, prompting multiple lawsuits in multiple states. So far, all U.S. District judges have ruled the mandate’s application and denial of RARs was unconstitutional and violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Lawsuits are ongoing.

Republican co-sponsors of Cruz’s bill include Sens. Mike Crapo and James Risch of Idaho, Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven of North Dakota, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Mike Lee of Utah, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Mike Braun of Indiana, Steve Daines of Montana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Josh Hawley of Missouri.