Pentagon likely rushed denials of religious exemption requests for COVID-19 vaccine, watchdog says

The army may have moved too quickly in refusing religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccination. The Pentagon’s inspector general has warned that mass denials of religious exemption requests are “worrying,” according to an internal memo obtained by Military.com.

“We have seen a trend toward generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment required by federal law and DoD and military service policies,” Pentagon Inspector General Sean O’Donnell said in the memo. of June 2 addressed to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. “Some of the appeal decisions included material that demonstrated greater consideration of the facts and circumstances involved in a claim.”

The watchdog said military officials likely spent only a few minutes reviewing exemption requests, providing potential grounds for legal challenges to denial decisions.

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“The volume and pace at which decisions have been made to deny requests is concerning,” the memo said. “Assuming a 10-hour working day with no breaks or attention to other matters, the average review period was approximately 12 minutes for each package. Such a review period seems insufficient to process each request in a individualized while performing the required duties of their position.”

Most services are still waging legal battles over enforcement of the vaccination mandate for troops, issued by Austin in August 2021. The Navy and Marine Corps are effectively on standby to remove service members who have refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The Army National Guard has about 40,000 unvaccinated soldiers whose service component has not found what to do. And some 1,200 coast guards are trying to qualify for a class action lawsuit over the denial of their religious exemptions. The review process is an important factor in many of these cases.

The Army, by far the largest service, had approved 1,602 requests for religious exemption out of 8,514 in the active duty and reserve components as of August 12. Overall, the Inspector General found approximately 50 denials per day over a 90-day period across the services.

In the military, servicemen must be vaccinated against at least a dozen diseases, ranging from influenza to smallpox. The only way to be excused is through a religious waiver or an even rarer medical exemption – reserved for extreme and rare cases, such as if a service member is known to be at risk for myocarditis, an effect rare cardiac inflammation secondary to COVID vaccination.

COVID-19 vaccines were politicized almost immediately by conservative pundits and some Republican lawmakers after they were made available. Critics have argued, without evidence, that vaccines don’t work or are grossly dangerous themselves, points that have been refuted by seemingly every medical study.

Most of the religious objections are due to the use of fetal tissue in COVID-19 vaccine research. Although the researchers used cell lines derived from elective abortion tissues originally created decades ago, these tissues were used to produce test proteins and were not introduced directly into the vaccine.

Additionally, a vaccine that didn’t use fetal tissue in any part of its development, Novavax, was approved by the FDA, then the Pentagon, in August. Navy and Marine Corps spokespersons have confirmed to Military.com that the vaccine is available to their service members.

Demands for exemption among the military have been a matter of controversy and debate since the introduction of the vaccination mandate, and have sometimes pitted religious leaders against those of their flock.

Gab.com CEO Andrew Torba — a far-right social network who gained notoriety for being actively used by the man who was accused of killing 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 – wrote in a 2021 newsletter that he “is came across a set of religious exemption documents that the creator calls an ‘air request for strict religious exemption for the COVID vaccine if it is required for you at work, school, or the military.’

The military model Torba proposed was a 21-page document that claimed the Eastern Orthodox Church was against the vaccine. However, the leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church in America says the opposite – there was no necessary exemption from them on the vaccine.

Pope Francis has likewise encouraged vaccination and therefore the leaders of Islam. A research paper even concluded that getting vaccinated was “in effect a form of Shariah compliance”.

Other service members have told Military.com that they obtained their exemption documents from secret, hidden Facebook groups, sometimes citing arguments from people like Lt. Col. Theresa Long. Long, an Alabama-based army surgeon, has won supporters in vaccine denial circles despite the fact that many of her claims made in court were filled with errors and inaccuracies.

Meanwhile, legal challenges that vaccine refuseers have filed in federal courts have had an impact. In late March, the Navy was forced to suspend the removal of sailors with pending exemption requests after a Texas judge ruled that a case involving Navy SEALs refusing vaccines would apply to the entire Navy. service – just days after his earlier order to halt all Navy action against the SEALs was restricted by the Supreme Court.

Last week, in response to an injunction issued by Judge Steven Merryday in federal court in Florida, the Marine Corps posted a message to say it too was to stop the separations. The decision will impact about 1,150 Marines, according to a statement from the service.

Merryday was the same judge who in March barred the Navy from reassigning a destroyer commander despite testimony that the man had flouted the service’s rules for COVID-19 mitigation while seeking an exemption religious of the vaccine. Merryday called the officer “triumphantly fit, lean and strong, who is healthy, who is young.” It was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who fought and prevailed on the Army’s last major anthrax vaccination warrant, previously told Military.com that it’s no coincidence that many of the same judges have appeared in cases of vaccines.

“It’s clearly forum shopping. … I don’t think it’s surprising that stays have been secured in very conservative neighborhoods on religious issues,” he said.

Service members were among the first populations of Americans eligible for vaccines, almost immediately when they hit the market. However, the Ministry of Defense never issued a requirement for boosters. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccine effectiveness declines over time, making it unclear whether troops inoculated immediately are technically still vaccinated if they never received a booster.

The news also comes as President Joe Biden has declared the COVID-19 pandemic over, echoing the sentiment across the entire military as commanders have eliminated virtually all protective measures and units have resumed their activities as usual. The worst impacts of coronavirus variants typically hit the elderly or people with other health conditions including obesity and diabetes, not the generally younger and relatively fit military population. A total of 95 service members have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

“We still have a problem with COVID”, the president said Sunday on “60 Minutes”. “We’re still working on it a lot. … If you notice, no one is wearing a mask. … Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape.”

— Steve Beynon can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

— Konstantin Toropin can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: What does the guard do with 40,000 unvaccinated soldiers? Nobody knows

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