(The Center Square) – A group of Navy SEALs locked in a legal battle over vaccine mandates got another victory in their fight, which could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit this week denied a request from the Navy for an emergency stay of an injunction that prevented them from taking action against the SEALS in question. The SEALS filed for religious exemptions but were denied, and they say their requests were not given fair consideration.
“The Navy has been extraordinarily successful in vaccinating service members, as at least 99.4% of whom are vaccinated,” said the appellate ruling. “But that general interest is nevertheless insufficient under [Religious Freedom Restoration Act]. The Navy must instead ‘scrutinize … the asserted harm of granting specific exemptions to particular religious claimants.’ The question, then, is not whether [the Navy has] a compelling interest in enforcing its [vaccination] policies generally, but whether it has such an interest in denying an exception to [each Plaintiff].”
First Liberty Institute, the group representing the SEALS, welcomed the decision.
“Events around the world remind us daily that there are those who seek to harm America. Our military should be welcoming service members, not forcing them out because of their religious beliefs,” said Mike Berry, Director of Military Affairs for First Liberty Institute. “The purge of religious servicemembers is not just devastating to morale, but it harms America’s national security. It’s time for our military to honor its constitutional obligations and grant religious accommodations for service members with sincere religious objections to the vaccine. We’re grateful the Fifth Circuit denied the Navy’s motion.”
That ruling upheld an injunction issued by U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Judge Reed O’Connor in January.
“The Navy servicemembers in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect,” O’Connor’s ruling reads. “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.”
The decision comes amidst a weakening of COVID-19 mandates nationwide. Several Democrat-led states reversed their mask mandates in recent weeks. Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the majority of Americans will no longer need to wear masks indoors.
“We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing …” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a press briefing.
At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court in January overturned President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate on private companies but upheld the mandate for certain health-care workers.
“The question before us is not how to respond to the pandemic, but who holds the power to do so. The answer is clear: Under the law as it stands today, that power rests with the States and Congress, not OSHA,” justices wrote in the majority opinion.
Now, the highest court may revisit the issue in the SEALs case. O’Connor’s January ruling case suggests the Navy went too far.
“No matter how remote the possibility, Plaintiffs could be compensated for their losses,” the ruling reads. “They could be reinstated with backpay, retroactively promoted, or reimbursed for lost benefits like medical insurance and the GI Bill. But because these injuries are inextricably intertwined with Plaintiffs’ loss of constitutional rights, this Court must conclude that Plaintiffs have suffered irreparable harm. Plaintiffs have suffered the more serious injury of infringement of their religious liberty rights under RFRA and the First Amendment . . .”