Air Force Grants First Religious Exemptions for COVID-19 Vaccine, But Won't Provide Details

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Syringes surround a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Syringes surround a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine before being administered at the Kadena Immunization Clinic at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Jan. 26, 2022. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Anna Nolte)

The Air Force granted its first batch of religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine to nine airmen but won't comment on the circumstances, including whether the service members were already on their way out of the ranks.

Eight of the requests were approved; another airman was rejected but won on appeal, according to a service news release Monday. So far, the Air Force has kicked out 142 airmen for refusing to get the vaccine.

"The Department of the Air Force determined the service members' accommodations could be supported with no impact to mission readiness," spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an emailed statement.

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But Stefanek declined to say whether these service members were already on terminal leave or already on their way out of the ranks, the basis for approval in other cases elsewhere in the military.

The Marine Corps made headlines last month when it became the first military branch to grant three religious exemptions, but all three went to Marines who were functionally no longer serving.

As of Feb. 1, 96% of airmen were fully vaccinated; however, no exemptions had been announced at that time.

Yet, a document filed with a federal court on Feb. 4 noted that the branch had granted six exemptions. The remaining three were apparently granted sometime in the last week.

The filing is part of a legal case in the northern district of Florida that aims to be a class-action lawsuit and names officers and enlisted personnel from all the military branches, as well as civilian contractors.

The suit asks the federal court to strike down the vaccine mandate as illegal. The case gained attention last week when the judge issued an injunction that stopped the Navy from removing a commander and a Marine lieutenant colonel from their jobs over their refusal.

In the injunction, the judge overseeing the suit, Steven Merryday, wrote that the two officers were "very likely to prevail on their claim that their respective branch of the military has wrongfully denied a religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccination."

"The record creates a strong inference that the services are discriminatorily and systematically denying religious exemptions without a meaningful and fair hearing," the judge added.

The Marine Corps recently changed its reenlistment code for those being booted from its ranks, making it easier for vaccine refusers to reenter the service if they subsequently get vaccinated.

Similarly, the Air Force added that "there is no pre-established reenlistment code for those separated for vaccine refusal."

"Each case is assessed on its own merits, as is the discharge characterization," Stefanek said, but did not discuss whether the Air Force is mirroring the Marine Corps' policy.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: The 3 Religious Exemptions Granted by the Military Went to Marines on Their Way Out

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