Federal judge blocks Pentagon from punishing Navy SEALs who refused COVID-19 vaccines on religious grounds

Federal judge blocks Pentagon from punishing Navy SEALs who refused COVID-19 vaccines on religious grounds
A member of the US Marine Corps receiving a vaccination.Carl Court/Getty Images
  • A nonprofit representing 35 Navy SEALs sued Biden and the DOD over his vaccine mandate.
  • The Navy had refused many service members a religious exemption to Biden's vaccine mandate.

A US federal judge blocked the Department of Defense from punishing a group of Naval Special Warfare sailors who refused COVID-19 vaccines on religious grounds.

The First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal organization representing 35 Navy SEALS, sued the DOD and President Joe Biden in November over the administration's vaccine mandate.

Biden set a deadline of December 14 for all US military personnel to get vaccinated, but allowed exemptions to be granted on religious grounds. However, the Navy has so far approved none of the 3,247 requests for religious exemption from the vaccine, as Insider's Bethany Biron reported last week.

The lawsuit said the 35 service members faced a range of disciplinary measures for refusing the vaccine, including being administratively separated from their vaccinated colleagues or dismissed.

In a Monday filing, US District Judge Reed O'Connor said the soldiers were within their rights to to request a religious exemption to vaccination and ordered a preliminary injunction to prevent the DOD from punishing them.


"The Navy service members in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect," O'Connor wrote in the order.

"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."

A DOD spokesperson told Insider it was "studying the decision."

The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.

The service members in the suit declined the vaccine on the grounds that aborted fetal cell lines are used in the production of vaccines, which are an "affront to their Creator," O'Connor said.


Fetal cell lines are cells grown using DNA from aborted fetuses. They were used in the development of several mRNA vaccines, and during the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Of the 35 SEALs represented in the suit, 19 had requests for a religious exemption denied by the Navy, O'Connor wrote, adding that the Navy does not respect religious exemptions.

"The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory," O'Connor wrote. "It merely rubber stamps each denial."

O'Connor also said that the threat of 35 unvaccinated SEALs to the safety of the Navy was not sufficient, as most other personnel were vaccinated.

"The Plaintiffs' loss of religious liberties outweighs any forthcoming harm to the Navy. Even the direst circumstances cannot justify the loss of constitutional rights. Fortunately, the future does not look so dire. Nearly 100% of the Navy has been vaccinated," he said.


As of Thursday, the Marine Corps has dismissed 206 Marines for refusing to get vaccinated.

O'Connor said in the order that he had dismissed Biden as a party in this case, as the court has "no declaratory or injunctive power" against him.