Navy Halts Discharges of Sailors with COVID-19 Religious Exemption Requests

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COVID-19 vaccines in Morton Hall Gymnasium onboard Naval Submarine Base (SUBASE) New London
Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Unit Groton health care professionals administer COVID-19 vaccines in Morton Hall Gymnasium onboard Naval Submarine Base (SUBASE) New London, Feb. 24, 2021. (Tristan B. Lotz/U.S. Navy)

The Navy suspended the discharges late on Tuesday of sailors who have refused to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate after a Texas judge ruled that a case involving vaccine-refusing Navy SEALs would apply to the entire Navy.

Just days after his January order to halt any Navy action against 35 sailors was narrowed by the Supreme Court to no longer inhibit deployment decisions by the service, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor granted the sailors' request to broaden the case out to a class action that includes “4,095 Navy service members who have filed religious accommodation requests,” the Monday ruling said.

O’Connor then ordered the Navy to halt any action against the thousands of sailors prompting the Navy’s pause.

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According to a copy of the Navy-wide message provided to Military.com by the Navy, the service will stop separation proceedings against any sailor who submitted a request for religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

“Adverse administrative consequences and separation processing … continue to apply for personnel who did not submit requests for religious accommodation,” the message added.

It is not clear if the Marine Corps, which falls under the Department of the Navy, will also follow suit. Military.com reached out to the Marine Corps but did not hear back before publication.

Sailors who have chosen to voluntarily leave the service or transfer to the Fleet Reserve after getting their accommodation requests denied can cancel or amend those requests, though the message notes that “time is of the essence for updated requests.”

O’Connor’s order noted that, given the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Navy can consider sailors’ “vaccination status in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions.” The Navy’s message also noted that it had that option.

When asked Tuesday about O’Connor’s decision, neither the Navy nor the Department of Justice offered any comment.

Lawyers for the Department of Justice argued that the Navy has a strong interest in maintaining a fully vaccinated force and, in a court document arguing against making the case a class action, noted that “just because [the Navy SEALs] disagree with the strength of the Navy’s compelling governmental interest does not mean that the Navy is acting in bad faith or unlawfully in denying religious exemption requests.”

In January, Vice Adm. Bill Merz, the Navy's operations and strategy boss, told reporters that despite a fully vaccinated operational force, the sea service was still seeing cases on ships and that vaccines were necessary to keep the more severe outbreaks, like the one that sidelined the destroyer USS Chafee for more than a month in 2021, at bay.

"We have become very consistent at sea again, and I would tell you, if I had to put a dollar value on it, it's probably lower than it was a year ago because of the ability to be able to manage [COVID-19] at sea [and] return to normal operations,” Merz told reporters.

As of last Wednesday, the date of the most recent update, the Navy had discharged just over 650 active-duty and reserve sailors over the vaccine mandate.

The branch has not granted any religious exemption requests to active-duty sailors, but it did give nine conditional approvals to sailors in the Individual Ready Reserve, a non-drilling component of the reserve corps, with the understanding that, if called up, they would get the shots.

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

Related: Judge Stops Navy from Discharging Any Religious Vaccine Refusers

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