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Military watchdog says officials were too quick to reject religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination

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United States Forces Korea via Getty Images

The military may have acted too speedily to deny religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination requested by service members, a Defense Department watchdog concluded in a report.

Pentagon Inspector General Sean O'Donnell wrote there was a "concerning" trend in the number of exemptions and the rate at which they were rejected, according to a June 2 memo reported by Military.com.

"We found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies," O'Donnell wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. "Some of the appellate decisions included documentation that demonstrated a greater consideration of facts and circumstances involved in a request."

Austin ordered a vaccine mandate for troops on August 24, 2021, the day after the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Service members were required to either get the shots or be ultimately discharged.

The Army, the largest branch of the military, has received 8,514 religious exemption requests of which 1,602 were rejected. Only 24 have been approved and the rest are pending as of Aug. 12.

The inspector general estimated there were about 50 denials per day in a 90-day period across all branches of the military. O'Donnell indicated military officials spent just minutes reviewing each exemption instead of thoroughly reviewing each case, making the military vulnerable to lawsuits from service members who were forced to resign after refusing to take a COVID-19 vaccine.

"The volume and rate at which decisions were made to deny requests is concerning," the memo reportedly said. "Assuming a 10-hour work day with no breaks or attention to other matters, the average review period was about 12 minutes for each package. Such a review period seems insufficient to process each request in an individualized manner and still perform the duties required of their position."

Several legal challenges have already been filed alleging unvaccinated service members were discriminated against by the military. In late March, a Texas judge blocked the Navy from discharging sailors with pending exemption requests, Military.com reported. Last week, the U.S. Marine Corps announced a pause on administrative actions against unvaccinated Marines after a federal judge in Florida in August blocked the Corps from discharging religious exemption applicants.

Many service members remain in limbo as the Biden administration navigates these legal challenges. The Army National Guard has about 40,000 unvaccinated soldiers that it has no plan for, according to Military.com. Another 1,200 Coast Guardsmen are seeking to qualify for a class-action lawsuit against the military for their religious exemptions being denied, the outlet reported.

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