Judge suspects COVID mandate religious exemption process is a ‘ruse’ in Navy Seals challenge

A federal judge ordered each branch of the U.S. military to file detailed reports every two weeks on how they’re handling exemption requests from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, calling it “quite plausible” that the religious exemption process is an illegal “ruse.”

It was a qualified victory for the Navy SEALs and other service members who filed suit last month to block the mandate after their exemption requests were denied. Their lawyers said they could face “court-martial or involuntary separation.”

While refusing to issue a preliminary injunction against the military mandate, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday ruled Monday that the data thus far suggest the military is not handling exemption requests in good faith.

“[M]ore than 16,643 requests for a religious exemption pend,” he wrote. “The military has granted no exemptions but has denied hundreds.” 

The plaintiffs are justified to suspect these trends “will result inevitably in the undifferentiated (and therefore unlawful under RFRA) denial of each service member’s request,” the judge continued, referring to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“The importance of a person’s right to religious liberty” under the First Amendment and RFRA “commends deferring” the motion for injunction “pending the accumulation and reporting of additional data,” Merryday said.