Updated: Dec 10, 2022
The COVID-19 vaccination mandates impacted Americans across the country, forcing many to choose between their bodily autonomy and, in many cases, their livelihoods. But many Americans had to choose between not just their preferred health choices but also their sincerely held religious beliefs. Sadly, the very men and women who defend constitutional rights, such as freedom of religion, have experienced their own rights being attacked. An Epoch Original Documentary, available on EpochTV, titled “Pentagon’s War on Religion” exposes an ongoing trend of religious discrimination within the Department of Defense.
An award-winning reporter for The Epoch Times, Joshua Philipp, leads the investigation into what appears to be widespread religious discrimination within the U.S. Armed Forces. Pushback to the COVID-19 vaccination mandates revealed possible military and constitutional law violations in an institution designed to protect these fundamental rights.
In July 2021, the Biden administration explored COVID-19 vaccine mandates for the armed forces. Although service members were told they could file for religious accommodations, their requests were overwhelmingly denied. For example, Philipp interviewed Lt. Col.
Brandi King, who served in the Air Force Reserve Command for 19 years. She was mandated via phone in September 2021 that she had to get vaccinated or submit an exemption request. However, when King disclosed her intention to file for religious accommodation, her supervisor asked her to reconsider, saying he had heard that those requests would not be allowed.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice details crimes and punishments for the armed forces. Article 92 addresses a failure to obey an order. Troops have been punished, kicked out, and segregated for not getting vaccinated. However, military law requires allowing religious exemptions for vaccinations. Nevertheless, the military broadly displayed little intent to recognize this legally protected right. King was not the only one.
U.S. Navy documents detail service members’ risk in refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. According to a document from the U.S. Navy titled “Immunization Exemptions for Religious Beliefs,” troops face punishment if they file for a religious exemption and then it is denied. Punishments include potential court marshals, among other measures, for disobeying a lawful order.
Documents reveal the military has already determined that the COVID vaccine mandate is a lawful order. A document titled “Navy Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination and Reporting Policy” states, “refusal to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, absent an approved exemption, will constitute a failure to obey a lawful order and is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and / or may result in administrative action.” A Secretary of the Navy order states that “because COVID-19 vaccination is now mandatory, commanders, commanding officers, or officers in charge … are authorized to temporarily reassign Navy service members who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, regardless of exemption status,” including allowing them to submit a report of misconduct and delaying promotion of any officer who refuses the vaccine.
A military member gets a COVID-19 vaccine in Fort Knox, Ky., in a file image. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
Major Kim Bitter served for 22 years in the U.S Air Force Reserve. Now, her career is in jeopardy right before retirement. Bitter’s underlying health condition caused her doctor to advise against the COVID-19 vaccination. Although she submitted a medical exemption request signed by her doctor, the military still denied it. She also submitted a religious accommodation request, which was denied. Her commander then informed Bitter that she wouldn’t be serving in the military anymore and would be out-processed to inactive ready reserve. This means sitting on the sidelines until her enlistment contract expires, which is detrimental to many troops’ careers, livelihoods, and pensions.
Why is the military willing to treat its service members this way? Are these actions even legal? Philipp spoke with multiple lawyers to find out.
Lawyer Mike Berry, First Liberty’s General Counsel, represented 35 Navy Seals and others seeking religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccination mandates at the time of the documentary. Berry said the DOD is acting as if the unvaccinated are unworthy of protection of their constitutional rights and that only the fully vaccinated have rights and liberties to be enjoyed. He believes this treatment displays blatant bigotry and discrimination, especially due to the religious beliefs that forbid many from getting the vaccine.
As of January 2022, only the U.S. Marine Corps had granted any religious accommodations for the COVID vaccine, and even the two they granted have been called into question. Some have received an exemption for medical or administrative purposes, suggesting the military is not considering religious exemptions with the same weight as others.
The apparent blanket denial of religious exemptions may violate religious protections such as the First Amendment of the Constitution, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, among other laws, according to lawyers. Philipp cites one allowed exemption for people participating in the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials using placebos, meaning these participants are unvaccinated. If the mandates were set because the unvaccinated pose too much danger to the armed forces, no one would be allowed to be unvaccinated.
The EpochTV episode shows that a June 2021 order from the Air Force Chief of Chaplain states that when considering religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine, commanders will approve the religious accommodation requests unless a compelling government interest exists behind the act they are requesting exemption from. Does this suggest a predetermined policy based on government interests to deny religious accommodations?
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 holds that religious protections under the U.S. Constitution are not just limited to official interpretations of religions or denominations. Beyond this, it protects the sincerely held beliefs unique to each individual, stating that the military cannot burden the exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. The only exception is if the government can show compelling justification to place restrictions, and even then, must prove that the path taken is the least restrictive means available. How is it least restrictive if medical exemptions are recognized for certain reasons, but religious exemptions are not allowed?
Alarmingly, it appears that religious exceptions have been denied for some time. For example, the Department of the Navy says the last vaccine religious exemption request to be approved was in 2015. This suggests that refusal to honor religious freedoms with exemption requests predates the COVID-19 vaccines.
According to former Navy Chaplain Dr. Gordon Klingenschmitt, the COVID-19 mandates reveal a pattern of religious discrimination within the military that has been going on for over a decade. In 2006, Klingenschmitt was no longer allowed to conduct sectarian prayers. This means chaplains could pray to a god, but they could not pray in Jesus’s name. Doing so would result in punishment by their commanding officer.
In February 2021, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a military-wide effort to address extremism in the ranks. Details on these discussions raised allegations of discrimination towards those with religious beliefs. In March 2021, while testifying before the House Armed Service Committee, Berry exposed a slide in a Department of Defense training manual that categorized Catholics and evangelical Christians as “religious extremists.” “Does this mean that the military’s efforts to wipe out extremism include a campaign that discriminates against Catholics and evangelical Christians?” asked Phillip. The slide even placed Catholics and evangelical Christians on a list next to the violent and racist Klu Klux Klan groups and terrorist organizations such as Al Quaeda and Hamas.
According to the EpochTV episode, the DOD has been promoting extremist views itself. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has exposed hundreds of stories from military whistleblowers that the DOD is pushing the Marxist ideology of Critical Race Theory within its ranks. Military history has been replaced with extreme leftist political ideologies such as systemic racism and white privilege. The military also has incorporated racist and openly discriminatory books such as “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo in its education. For the military to allow the presence of socialist ideology that has falsified American history and divides society based on race, gender, and ethnicity, is deeply concerning, Phillip said. All service members swear an oath to defend the Constitution, yet the department’s policies actively discriminate against religion.
Every freedom in the U.S. Constitution is contingent on freedom of religion. If a person has freedom of speech, press, and assembly, but isn’t allowed to write, speak, or assemble on issues of faith, then they don’t have those rights after all. All American liberties hinge upon the individual’s religious freedom to have their own conscience and to live accordingly.
1.4 million people serve in the U.S. military. If successful, Berry’s case will show that people do not have to give up their religious freedoms when they serve in the military. Being in the military means that there will be orders and directives. However, those orders and directives must comply with the law and the Constitution. Service members have a right and obligation to challenge orders that violate their constitutional rights. Freedom of religion is closely tied to freedom overall, and a threat to either is a threat to both.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
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