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Federal judge rules Air Force officer does not have to receive Covid-19 vaccine

<i>ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>A healthcare worker fills a syringe with Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at a community vaccination event in a predominately Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles in 2021.
AFP via Getty Images
A healthcare worker fills a syringe with Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at a community vaccination event in a predominately Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles in 2021.

By Ellie Kaufman, CNN

A federal judge in Georgia ruled that an anonymous Air Force officer does not have to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, despite the military’s vaccine mandate, because of her religious beliefs.

The judge ordered a preliminary injunction preventing the Defense Department and the Air Force from enforcing the military’s vaccine mandate on the anonymous officer.

This is the first injunction that has blocked the military’s vaccine mandate from being enforced on any individual active duty or reserve service member, the Thomas More Society, which is representing the officer, said in a release. In a separate federal case in Texas, a judge ruled that a group of Navy SEALs who claimed a religious exemption from the vaccine could not face adverse action from the Navy.

The anonymous officer in the Georgia case said that the vaccine mandate violated her religious beliefs. She applied for a religious exemption in the fall of 2021 before the Air Force’s vaccine deadline, but her request was denied. She appealed the decision, but her appeal was denied as well. She was given three days to decide if she would get the vaccine or apply for early retirement. She chose early retirement, according to court documents.

The officer has been in the military for 25 years and is currently a member of the Air Force Reserves, the court documents state.

Judge Tilman Self ruled that the vaccine mandate did violate the officer’s religious freedoms.

“What real interest can our military leaders have in furthering a requirement that violates the very document they swore to support and defend?” Self wrote in his order.

“All Americans, especially the Court, want our country to maintain a military force that is powerful enough to thoroughly destroy any enemy who dares to challenge it. However, we also want a military force strong enough to respect and protect its service members’ constitutional and statutory religious rights,” Self wrote. “This ruling ensures our armed services continue to accomplish both.”

The Defense Department has said the military’s vaccine mandate is essential to maintain readiness of US troops. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in his initial memo to service members when the mandate was put in place in August that the “health and readiness of our force is critical to America’s defense.”

The Department of the Air Force is aware of the ruling and will abide by the court’s order “until the matter is legally resolved,” Air Force spokesperson Laurel Tingley told CNN in a statement.

While the ruling only applies to the one officer who filed the lawsuit, the order in her favor could encourage other challenges to the mandate.

The Air Force has granted 3,256 exemptions to the military vaccine mandate as of Monday, according to Department of the Air Force data. Eight religious exemptions have been approved, 2,664 are pending and 3,381 religious exemptions have been denied, according to the data. There are an additional 869 religious exemptions pending appeal, one appeal approved and 536 exemptions denied on appeal.

Out of the total Air Force, including active duty, reserve and Air Force National Guard members, 96.1% are fully vaccinated as of Feb. 14, according to the data.

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