Troops Suing Defense Department over Vaccine Mandate Reach $1.8 Million Settlement

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An airman provides a patient with the COVID-19 vaccine at MacDill
An airman provides a patient with the COVID-19 vaccine at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, Sept. 17, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Hiram Martinez)

The Defense Department has been ordered to pay $1.8 million in legal fees as settlement for two lawsuits that challenged its requirement that all U.S. troops be vaccinated against COVID-19.

A Florida U.S. District Court judge awarded the money last week to the firm representing the plaintiffs, Liberty Counsel. The cases, one involving several Navy SEALs, were filed by a total of 48 service members -- the majority of whom were officers -- representing all branches of the armed forces and components.

The Navy SEALs' lawsuit was first filed in 2021, alleging that the military services and the Defense Department had violated their right to religious freedom for "categorically denying" their request for religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine.

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In the case, a district court judge quashed the Navy's ability to punish the sailors for refusing the vaccine order, a ruling upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that was later rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Congress passed a law in December requiring the DoD to drop the vaccine mandate, but the lawsuits continued. The settlement, agreed to last week, was a win for the "federal right to a religious exemption" as well as a defeat to the vaccine mandate, according to Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel.

"For two years, Liberty Counsel has been defending the brave men and women of the U.S. military against Joe Biden's unlawful COVID shot mandates," Staver said in a statement on the firm's website.

The settlement funds will go only to Liberty Counsel to cover attorneys fees and costs associated with the lawsuit. The plaintiffs will not receive any of the compensation.

The plaintiffs cited religious reasons for refusing the vaccine, objecting to the new technology used to make and test it, which involved the use of cell lines from fetuses aborted in the 1970s and 1980s. The vaccines themselves contain no aborted fetal tissue, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

A settlement is not an admission of guilt or wrongdoing by either party. The judge’s ruling was first reported by Military Times.

Roughly 17,000 service members refused the vaccine and more than 8,400 were discharged for their decision, including 3,717 Marines, 2,041 Navy sailors, 1,841 Army soldiers, and 834 Air Force and Space Force members.

More than 1,000 service members received religious exemptions before the mandate was dropped.

From the time the COVID-19 vaccines received emergency authorization for use in the U.S., the Defense Department has vaccinated more than 2 million service members and nearly 350,000 DoD civilian employees.

Through last December, the Pentagon recorded 740,942 cases of COVID-19 among troops, family members, DoD employees and contractors, and 690 deaths, including 96 service members.

The Pentagon did not provide a comment on the settlement by publication.

U.S. service members kicked out for refusing the vaccine were largely separated under a general discharge, meaning they have access to health care and disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs but are not eligible for education benefits.

Service members who were discharged can apply for an upgrade and also are eligible to rejoin the service. According to a report by CNN, just 43 service members dismissed over the mandate have returned to military duty.

– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.

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