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Federal judge blocks Biden Defense Dept. from punishing vaccine-refusing Navy SEALS, other service members

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A federal judge on Monday sided with a group of Navy SEALs and other special forces service members who refused the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds, ruling that the Department of Defense cannot punish them over their decision.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor of the Northern District of Texas issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Navy and the Defense Department from enforcing the Biden administration's vaccine mandate against the active-duty military personnel.

“Our nation asks the men and women in our military to serve, suffer, and sacrifice. But we do not ask them to lay aside their citizenry and give up the very rights they have sworn to protect,” O’Connor wrote in his 26-page order.

He added: "The Navy service members in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect. 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."

According to the New York Times, the case was brought by a group of 35 Navy service members — including SEALs and members of the Naval Special Warfare Command — who argued that their "sincerely held religious beliefs forbid each of them from receiving the Covid-19 vaccine for a variety of reasons based upon their Christian faith."

They represent a small number of service members who have yet to receive the vaccination. As of early November, 99.4% of active-duty Navy personnel had been fully vaccinated against the virus, according to court documents.

In seeking religious accommodation from the vaccine mandate, the service members cited beliefs ranging from "opposition to abortion and the use of aborted fetal cell lines the development of the vaccine" to "direct, divine instruction not to receive the vaccine."

O'Connor, in his ruling, noted that it was not up to the court to decide whether the plaintiffs' beliefs were true, but only whether they were sincere. And in the end, determined that "the plaintiffs' loss of religious liberties outweighs any forthcoming harm to the Navy."

"Even the direst circumstances cannot justify the loss of constitutional rights," the judge reasoned. "Fortunately, the future does not look so dire. Nearly 100% of the Navy has been vaccinated. Hospitalizations are rising at a much slower rate than COVID-19 cases. COVID-19 treatments are becoming more effective and widely available."

The ruling, which is likely to be appealed by the Biden administration, could reshape the effect of President Biden's vaccine mandate for all active-duty military personnel if it is ultimately upheld.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who led an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in December, celebrated the ruling as a major victory for liberty.

“I was proud to lead an amicus brief in support of service members seeking a religious exemption to Biden’s vaccine mandate. This court action is a big victory against Biden’s tyrannical COVID mandate that would undermine religious freedom and hurt our national security," Cruz said in a statement.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with a response from Sen. Ted Cruz.

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