System under strain as military personnel request religious waivers of COVID vaccine



The military system of implementing a COVID-19 vaccination order for all in the ranks faces unprecedented stress as historic numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines say their faith should allow them not to be vaccinated.

The result so far has been a huge logistical headache for Pentagon leaders and an unenviable task for the chaplains in the crosshairs. It’s a dilemma that shows no signs of easing as service immunization times come and go.

As the Defense Ministry presses aggressively to vaccinate the military and expel those who refuse, sources from all branches of the military said the sheer volume of faith-related exemption requests were unlike anything like this. that we had seen before in the American armed forces.

The exact numbers for most military services won’t be made public for several weeks, but the few numbers available so far paint a behind-the-scenes picture of a system not designed to handle such a large influx of demands. waiver in a relatively short period of time.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and senior department heads say the vaccine’s mandate is an issue of preparedness, necessary to protect those who serve and prevent COVID outbreaks from sidelining troops or curtailing deployments and naval missions. But as in the civilian world, skeptical vaccinators prove difficult to convince, even when faced with a direct order.

“They don’t have the resources to deal with this in a serious way,” said Sean Timmons, a Houston lawyer who said his firm, Tully Rinckey PLLC, represents more than 100 military personnel seeking COVID-19 exemptions. , mostly for religious reasons. land.

“It’s a giant mess,” Mr. Timmons told the Washington Times. “Nobody knows what’s going on. It has been a complete and utter disaster every step of the way. “

Pentagon officials disagree with this characterization and point out that every member of the service who requests a religious waiver of the federally-mandated coronavirus vaccine is given a fair hearing and ample opportunity to explain their objection.

But it is clear that the system of tracking, processing and decision-making on these exemption requests has never faced a test like this. The rampant push to vaccinate military personnel, combined with vaccine skepticism and political questions about how far the federal government can go to force vaccinations, has created a record number of military personnel seeking a way to circumvent the mandate.

The pressure on the system seems clear.

In the Air Force, for example, sources told the Washington Times that the military and civilians were working longer hours and some were being removed from other duties in order to help organize and review thousands of requests for religious exemption. At least 4,933 Airmen have filed waiver requests for COVID-19 vaccines on religious grounds – a figure one official described as “by far” the most in history.

As of November 3, none had been approved. The deadline to approve or deny these requests is December 2, just over a week away.

The Navy has yet to release data on the number of seafarers requesting religious exemptions, but officials admit the number is higher than in previous years, when few requests were made and even fewer were approved.

Over the past four years, for example, Navy officials have said only 24 sailors have requested religious exemptions from mandatory vaccinations. None of these exemption requests were approved.

The number linked to the coronavirus in the Navy is expected to be much higher. The service will publish the official number once the mandatory vaccination deadline of November 28 has passed.

Ahead of its own Dec. 15 vaccination deadline for active-duty soldiers, the military is also facing an influx of requests, although officials are not discussing specific numbers.

“The military’s religious accommodation process related to medical care is not new. While the scale of religious exemption requests related to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate may become larger than previous requests, the military will continue to process all requests for religious accommodation in accordance with established Ministry of Justice policy. Defense and the military, ”Army spokeswoman Heather J. Hagan told The Times.

And the refusal has real consequences: Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, in a memorandum signed last week, said active duty soldiers and those in Army Reserves and National Guard who do not receive the vaccine and do not get a religious or medical exemption will be “flagged”, which means they cannot be promoted, cannot re-enlist, and cannot even get new payments on their premiums of enlistment promised.

The Marine Corps vaccination deadline is November 28. After that date, the service will release figures on the number of Marines who have requested religious exemptions.

“The Marine Corps’ process for assessing requests for religious accommodations that require an exception to policy – grooming standards or vaccines – follows a rigorous approach to ensure Marines receive the proper attention,” a spokesperson said. from the Marine Corps to The Times. “The process begins with an interview at the Navy unit with the chaplain and approval by the first general officer in the chain of command. The request is forwarded to Manpower and Reserve Affairs where it is assessed by a three-member Religious Accommodation Review Committee, as well as health and legal services.

Personal questions

Although the specific process for handling requests differs from service to service, they are all based on a similar format. Military members consult with their commanders and make a formal request before moving on to the key step in the process: conversations with military chaplains. These chaplains are a vital cog in the process, although the sensitive and potentially intimate faith issues they discuss behind closed doors with the military remain private.

The Arlington-based Military Chaplains Association, whose members include current and former military chaplains, did not respond to The Times’ requests for comment for information on the interview process.

Although the details vary depending on a service member’s faith and specific objection to a vaccine, chaplains have general guidelines to follow.

In the Navy, for example, the service’s 2020 guidelines for processing exemption requests include a “chaplain maintenance checklist template” to help determine if a sailor’s religious beliefs “seemed honest. and sincere ”.

Among the factors chaplains should consider: whether the applicant was credible; whether their “attitude and model of conduct” are consistent; whether they attend a place of worship or otherwise participate in “activities” associated with their belief; if there are other people who support their requests; and letters or other documents from an organization espousing their beliefs.

If a chaplain approves the request – an outcome that seems rare, based on past numbers and interviews with military service officials – he then walks up the chain to the uniformed leaders.

Officials stressed, however, that just because a chaplain approves a faith-based exemption request does not necessarily mean it is approved. Military commanders must then weigh this request against other factors, for example whether granting the waiver could interfere with good order and discipline in the unit or, in the case of COVID-19, could result in directly from potential health risks to other military personnel.

Mr. Timmons, the Houston lawyer, said his clients have described the process as “invasive” and “uncomfortable.” The chaplains, he added, understand that the Pentagon is seeking to grant as few waivers as possible.

Once again, defense officials vigorously reject this argument and say that every serviceman receives a full and fair hearing.

But there is no doubt that deeply personal questions are at stake.

“How often do you go to church? How often do you pray? How long have you practiced your religion? Mr Timmons said, citing questions he posed to customers. “It’s private. It’s something you keep to yourself unless you’re talking to someone you know on an intimate level.

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