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Commanding officer at the Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command places a Special Warfare pin, known as a “Trident,” on a member of SEAL Qualification Training Class 336 during their graduation ceremony at NSW Center in Coronado, Calif., on April 15, 2020. Twenty-six Navy SEALs and nine other special operations sailors asked a federal court to shield them from the Pentagon’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, claiming in a lawsuit Tuesday that it unconstitutionally infringes on their religious rights.
Commanding officer at the Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command places a Special Warfare pin, known as a “Trident,” on a member of SEAL Qualification Training Class 336 during their graduation ceremony at NSW Center in Coronado, Calif., on April 15, 2020. Twenty-six Navy SEALs and nine other special operations sailors asked a federal court to shield them from the Pentagon’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, claiming in a lawsuit Tuesday that it unconstitutionally infringes on their religious rights. (Petty Officer 1st Class Anthony W. Walker/U.S. Navy photo)

Twenty-six Navy SEALs and nine other special operations sailors asked a federal court to shield them from the Pentagon’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, claiming in a lawsuit Tuesday that it unconstitutionally infringes on their religious rights.

The suit from the unnamed sailors filed in the U.S. District Court’s Northern Texas division charges the Pentagon does not take seriously their religion-based objections to the coronavirus vaccine, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin mandated for troops in August. The plaintiffs — the SEALs, five special warfare combatant craft crewmen, three Navy divers, and one explosive ordnance disposal technician — had each formally sought a religious exemption to the coronavirus vaccine mandate from the Navy, which had either been denied or remained open as of Tuesday, according to the First Liberty Institute, a Christian conservative legal group based in Texas that filed the lawsuit for the sailors.

“[The] plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs forbid each of them from receiving the [coronavirus] vaccine for a variety of reasons based upon their Christian faith as revealed through the Holy Bible and prayerful discernment,” the lawsuit reads.

The suit claims the sailors have different reasons for believing the vaccines violate their religious beliefs — among them that they believe taking it would cause them to “participate in the abortion enterprise” or the immune response that the vaccines produce do so in “a manner not designed by God.”

The lawsuit also states, “Multiple plaintiffs hold to the sincere religious belief that, upon seeking guidance from God as to whether to receive a [coronavirus] vaccine, God instructed them not to do so.”

To date, none of the military services have disclosed granting a waiver to the vaccine mandate for religious reasons. The Navy said Wednesday that it had granted six medical exemptions, though it had not issued a religious exemption.

The service has given active-duty service members until Nov. 28 to be fully vaccinated, which is considered to be two weeks after completing their shot regimen. Navy reservists have until Dec. 28.

“The fact that the government has not granted a single religious exemption from the vaccine mandate shows that the [President Joe Biden’s] administration does not care about religious freedom,” said Mike Berry, First Liberty’s lead attorney for the lawsuit. “Instead, this appears to be an attempted ideological purge. Forcing a service member to choose between their faith and serving their country is abhorrent to the Constitution and America’s values.”

The Navy did not disclose how many requests it has received from sailors seeking exemption for religious reasons, but officials said such requests would be considered on a “case-by-case basis” and “given full consideration.” A Navy spokesman declined further comment Wednesday, citing the open lawsuit.

Navy data showed 96% of its active-duty force had been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday. The service said 99.5% of its active-duty force had received at least one dose of the vaccine. Also, as of Wednesday, 88% of Navy Reserve sailors had received at least one shot, and 84% was fully vaccinated, according to the data.

Pentagon officials have said failure to receive vaccinations could lead service members to be punished — including criminal charges for failing to obey an order — or discharged from the service. Last month, Austin called on commanders to show compassion in dealing with troops who do not comply with the mandate.

The lawsuit asks a judge to declare the troops’ rights under the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act were violated. It asks the judge to issue a preliminary and permanent injunction stopping the Pentagon from enforcing its vaccine mandate on them. It names Biden, Austin and Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro as defendants.

The lawsuit said the names of the plaintiffs cannot be made public for “significant risk of compromising their missions, operational security, and personal safety.”

Speaking last week alongside Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Berry said he believed the Pentagon would ultimately not grant any religious exemptions from getting the coronavirus vaccine. He would not say whether his clients objected to any of the 17 other vaccines mandated for service members by the Defense Department.

However, in the lawsuit, he and other First Liberty attorneys wrote some of their clients opposed the coronavirus vaccine because of the use of “aborted fetal cell lines” in the development of the vaccines, and they now objected to the use of any vaccines or medications that use such cell lines in their production.

None of the three coronavirus vaccines approved for use in the United States contain fetal cells, but fetal cell lines — laboratory-grown cells derived from abortions performed several decades ago — were used during the testing and development of the vaccines, according to the National Institutes of Health. Several religious authorities, including the Vatican, have said the vaccines were morally acceptable for its constituents.

In the lawsuit, the attorneys wrote their clients object to the vaccine mandate and not other safety measures intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, teleworking or regular coronavirus tests.

“[The] plaintiffs do not believe that staying true to their faith means exposing themselves or others to unnecessary risk,” the lawsuit reads. “Quite the contrary, they view life — whether their own or that of their fellow service members — as sacred and deserving protection.”

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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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