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WASHINGTON EXAMINER: The Navy has a religion problem

The purpose of our military is to protect our way of life and support our interests and allies overseas.

But what would happen if we stripped our all-volunteer force of some of the traits that make them Americans? Would our military be as effective if we told the men and women who want to fight for our values they must first abandon those values?

This isn’t a hypothetical question. The last few weeks have shown us that the Pentagon — and, in particular, the U.S. Navy — is casually stomping on the religious freedom of our service members.

The problem was exposed after the Navy established that all active-duty and reserve sailors must be vaccinated by late 2021. At the start, Navy leaders promised sailors would have the option of seeking a religious exemption to vaccine mandate. But as the weeks unfolded, nearly 3,300 active-duty sailors asked for the exemption, and each one of them was rejected.

When a group of 35 Navy SEALs and sailors challenged this result in federal court, the judge agreed and explained in detail exactly how the Navy is failing to respect religious rights.

First, the Navy seems to be biased against granting a religious exemption. The process begins by filling out what Judge Reed O’Connor of Texas called a “disapproval template,” which winds its way through the bureaucracy and ends up with a decision to disapprove any request for religious accommodation.

“In essence, the Plaintiffs’ requests are denied the moment they begin,” wrote O’Connor, who added the Navy’s process for considering these requests is “theater.”

Secondly, the Navy is letting sailors know that if anyone were somehow granted an exemption for religious reasons, they would be permanently nondeployable. "Some Plaintiffs were told by their chains of command that if their religious accommodations were approved, they would lose their SEAL Tridents,” O’Connor wrote. “Others will lose their Tridents merely for requesting the exemption.”

The 300 or so sailors who received medical or administrative exemptions to the vaccine mandate are allowed to deploy on ships around the world. O’Connor said this radically different treatment amounts to religious discrimination.

“Those who receive religious exemptions are medically disqualified,” he wrote. “Those who receive medical exemptions are not. But the activity itself — forgoing the vaccine — is identical.”

In early February, the Navy revealed further its bias against religion is real. The 35 SEALs and sailors who sued the Navy over the vaccine mandate went back to court to stop the Navy from retaliating against them.

Some plaintiffs say they are denied training and deployment opportunities, while others say they aren’t allowed to travel to treatment programs for traumatic brain injuries. One plaintiff said the Navy has essentially trapped him in a training program for several months longer than what is normal.

The Navy has a religion problem, one it needs to solve immediately. We cannot ask Americans to serve the greatest country on Earth, one that defends religious freedom, by placing them in a system that mindlessly strips away that freedom without explanation or sympathy.

Sadly, we seem to learn with each passing day that Washington is a place where America’s founding principles are most at risk. But the best defense of this nation increasingly comes from outside Washington, and we would do well to listen to it.

O’Connor clearly sees the situation for what it is: "The Navy service members in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect,” he wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”

This op-ed by Jason Beardsley appeared in the Washington Examiner on February 16, 2022.

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