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Judge blocks Navy from punishing sailors who refused vaccine, citing religious freedom concerns

U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor of the Northern District of Texas signed the injunction order, saying the DOD mandate "violates their religious freedoms."

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Monday granted an injunction against the Defense Department and the Biden Administration, temporarily halting the Navy's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for a group of 35 sailors.

The group includes SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant Craft crewmen, divers and an explosive ordnance disposal technician.

U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor of the Northern District of Texas signed the injunction order, saying the DOD mandate "violates their religious freedoms."

First Liberty Institute, the nation's largest non-profit organization dedicated to defending religious freedom, represented the plaintiffs against the DOD.

"They have approved thousands of medical and administrative exemptions, but they have yet to approve a single religious exemption," said First Liberty lawyer Mike Berry. "That demonstrates outright religious hostility. That is an affront to the Constitution and federal law."

Asked about the difference between the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and the numerous other vaccines military members are required to get, Berry wrote: 

"Every person is going to have their own individual conscience and beliefs. The law protects the rights of each person to follow their conscience and their religious convictions. Neither the government nor the courts have the legal right or authority to question whether someone’s religious beliefs are reasonable or legitimate. The fact that some of us might disagree with someone else’s beliefs does not give us the right to deny them the full protection of the Constitution and the law..... We represent clients who have, in fact, objected to all vaccines on religious grounds."

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who himself is in quarantine after having tested positive for COVID-19, has maintained that the mandate is a lawful order, and is a necessary medical requirement to protect service members and their families and ensure the combat readiness of the force.

Back in 2020, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was sidelined for 55 days, after more than 1,400 sailors tested positive for COVID, and one sailor died.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby on Tuesday said there was not much he could say in reaction to the ruling.

"We are aware of course of the injunction," he said. "And we are reviewing it, and are in discussion with the Department of Justice as to what options might be available to us going forward."

So far, more than 261,000 military personnel have tested positive for the virus. 82 have died.

The judge who made the decision has a long track record of ruling in favor of conservative causes.

Judge Reed O'Connor has also struck down the Affordable Care Act, family leave benefits for gay couples, and allowing transgender children to use school bathrooms that match their gender identity.

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