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The U.S. Supreme Court building as seen in July 2021 in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court building as seen in July 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Daniel Slim, AFP, Getty Images/TNS)

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has decided it won’t block the Air Force from disciplining a Reserve officer who refused to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Dunn brought the case to the Supreme Court earlier this month, asking the justices to block the service from “inflicting punishments that deprive him of his First Amendment freedoms and irreparably harm his career.”

Dunn is an Air Force pilot who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He left active duty and joined the Air Force Reserve in 2014.

The justices denied Dunn’s request in a brief, unsigned order Monday. Three conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — disagreed with the decision and would’ve granted Dunn’s request, the order said.

Dunn requested a religious exemption during the summer from the Defense Department’s mandate that all personnel be vaccinated against the coronavirus. His request was denied, and he was relieved of his command of the 452nd Contingency Response Squadron, which is based at March Air Reserve Base, Calif.

Dunn asked a federal court in California to block the Air Force from relieving him of his command, but the court rejected his request. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit did the same. On April 11, he asked the Supreme Court to intervene on an emergency basis.

In a rebuttal to Dunn’s case, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote the Air Force had a “compelling interest” in requiring Dunn’s vaccination because he led a unit “designed to be deployable worldwide with just 72 hours’ notice.”

“[V]accination of service members is an essential component of military readiness and is critical to protecting the health and safety of service members,” Prelogar wrote.

Dunn’s case follows a Supreme Court ruling in March in which the justices upheld the Navy’s authority to reassign Navy SEALs who refused to be vaccinated.

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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