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Joe Gallagher, a U.S. Army veteran, receives a coronavirus vaccination at the 7th Army Training Command’s Rose Barracks in Vilseck, Germany, on May 3, 2021. Top Army leaders are directing service officials to pause enforcement of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus vaccination mandate for civilian workers after a federal judge on Friday ordered the U.S. government to temporarily halt the policy.

Joe Gallagher, a U.S. Army veteran, receives a coronavirus vaccination at the 7th Army Training Command’s Rose Barracks in Vilseck, Germany, on May 3, 2021. Top Army leaders are directing service officials to pause enforcement of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus vaccination mandate for civilian workers after a federal judge on Friday ordered the U.S. government to temporarily halt the policy. (Markus Rauchenberger/U.S. Army)

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Top Army leaders are directing service officials to pause enforcement of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus vaccination mandate for civilian workers after a federal judge on Friday ordered the U.S. government to temporarily halt the policy.

The Army issued preliminary guidance this week to commanders, managers and supervisors across the service “to pause ongoing formal or informal disciplinary or enforcement actions against civilian employees” who remain unvaccinated, Lt. Col. Terry Kelley, an Army spokesman, said Wednesday. The directives come as top Pentagon and Biden administration officials review their options after U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey Brown of Texas ordered a pause in the policy in response to a lawsuit brought by the new Feds for Medical Freedom group, which was formed to challenge the mandate.

The Justice Department issued an appeal of the ruling shortly after Brown’s temporary injunction was ordered on Friday, said Danielle Blevins, a department spokeswoman. Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, said the administration believes the order requiring the coronavirus vaccines for civilian federal workers was legal.

Brown’s order does not impact uniformed military service members, who remain required to receive the vaccines, Pentagon officials said.

In addition to shielding civilians from potential punishment, the Army guidance also halted officials from considering civilian workers’ requests for religious- or medical-based exemptions from the coronavirus inoculation, according to service documents. Kelley declined further comment on the policy change, citing the ongoing litigation in the case.

The Air Force issued similar guidance in response to the judge’s ruling, a service official said Tuesday on the condition of anonymity. An Air Force spokesperson declined to comment, referring questions to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s office. Navy and Marine Corps spokespersons also declined comment and referred questions to Austin’s office and the federal Office of Personnel Management, respectively.

Spokespersons for Austin did not provide comment on changes to the Pentagon’s policy for civilian workers as of Wednesday afternoon. They said the Defense Department was aware of Brown’s ruling but could not comment because of the ongoing court case.

OPM did not respond to requests for comment. However, Biden administration officials told Government Executive, a news organization for federal workers, that OPM would pause “nearly all” enforcement of the president’s mandate for civilian employees while the injunction is in place.

Some 98% of federal workers were either vaccinated against the virus or had filed a request for an exemption, Psaki said Friday.

A preliminary injunction is a temporary ruling by a judge to pause a defendant from action while a case is under consideration. The injunction is not a final order.

In Brown’s 20-page ruling, he wrote he issued the injunction because he believed Biden might have overstepped his authority in ordering on Sept. 9 that all federal workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus. He cited as precedent the Supreme Court’s Jan. 13 ruling striking down Biden’s order directing large U.S. companies to mandate vaccination or require regular testing for their employees.

The case “is about whether the president can, with the stroke of a pen and without the input of Congress, require millions of federal employees to undergo a medical procedure as a condition of their employment,” Brown wrote. “That, under the current state of the law as just recently expressed by the Supreme Court, is a bridge too far.”

Brown also wrote in his ruling that the injunction’s timing was necessary because Justice Department lawyers had indicated that some federal agencies planned to start disciplining some unvaccinated civilian workers who could face being fired from their jobs. To date, the federal government has not fired civilian employees for failing to comply with the vaccine mandate, those lawyers told Brown.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said last week that no Defense Department civilians had been punished for vaccine refusal. Pentagon officials this week declined to say when the Defense Department planned to begin enforcing its mandate for civilian workers.

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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