System tense as military seeks religious exemptions from COVID vaccine

The military’s system of enforcing a COVID-19 vaccination order for all those in its ranks faces unprecedented stress as a historic number of soldiers, sailors, pilots and marines say their faith should allow them to skip the shot.

The result so far has been a huge logistical headache for Pentagon leaders and an unenviable job for the chaplains in sight. It’s a dilemma that shows no signs of easing as services vaccine deadlines come and go.

As the Department of Defense pushed aggressively to vaccinate service workers and expel those who refuse, sources in military departments said the sheer volume of faith-related waiver applications is unlike any before in the U.S. armed forces.

Exact numbers for most military services won’t be made public for a few weeks, but the few numbers available so far provide a behind-the-scenes look at a system not designed to handle such a massive influx of waiver requests in a relatively short time.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and senior service chiefs say the vaccine mandate is a matter of readiness, needed to help those who serve and prevent COVID outbreaks from sidelining troops or halting short-term deployment and naval missions. But as in the civilian world, vaccine skeptics prove difficult to win, even when given a direct warrant.

“They don’t have the resources to deal with this in a serious way,” he said Sean Timmons, An Houston lawyer who said: to be firm, Tully Rinckey PLLC, represents more than 100 military personnel seeking COVID-19 exemptions, most on religious grounds.

“It’s a gigantic mess,” said 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 strongly disagree with that characterization, stressing that any service member seeking a religious waiver from the federally mandated coronavirus vaccine will be heard fairly and given ample opportunity to explain their objection.

But it’s clear that the system for tracking, processing and making a decision on those waiver requests has never undergone a test like this. The frantic drive to vaccinate military personnel, combined with vaccine skepticism and political questions about how far the federal government can go to enforce vaccinations, has led to record numbers of military personnel seeking a way around the mandate.

The pressure on the system seems obvious.

For example, in the Air Force, sources told The Washington Times that military and civilians are working longer hours and that some are being withdrawn from other duties to help organize and assess thousands of requests for religious waiver. At least 4,933 pilots have filed for COVID-19 vaccine waivers 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 those requests is December 2, just over a week away.

The Navy has yet to release data on how many sailors seek religious exemptions, but officials admit the number is higher than in years past, when few requests were made and even fewer were approved.

For example, in the past four years, Navy officials said only 24 sailors sought religious exemptions from the required vaccinations. None of those exemption requests were approved.

The coronavirus-related figure in the Navy is expected to be much higher. The service will release the official number once the November 28 mandatory vaccination deadline has passed.

Ahead of its own December 15 vaccination deadline for active-duty soldiers, the military is also facing an influx of requests, though officials declined to discuss specific numbers.

“The military’s religious accommodation process with regard to medical care is not new. While the volume of religious waiver requests related to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate may grow in volume beyond previous requests, the military will continue to handle all requests for religious accommodation in accordance with established Department of Defense and military policies.” said army spokesman Heather J. Hagan told The Times.

And denial has real ramifications: Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said in a memorandum signed last week that soldiers on active duty and those in the Army Reserves and National Guard who don’t get the vaccine and don’t get religious or medical exemptions will be “flagged” , meaning they can’t be promoted, re-enrolled, or even get new payments on their promised hiring bonuses.

The Marine Corps vaccination deadline is November 28. After that date, the agency will release figures on how many Marines have applied for religious exemptions.

“The Marine Corps process for evaluating requests for religious accommodation that require an exception to the policy — care standards or vaccines — follows a rigorous approach to ensure that Marines receive the necessary attention,” a Marine Corps spokesperson said. to The Times. “The process begins with a Marine unit interview with the chaplain and approval from the first general officer in the chain of command. The request will be forwarded to Manpower and Reserve Affairs, where it will be reviewed by a three-member religious accommodation review committee, as well as health services and legal affairs.”

Personal questions

While the specific process for handling requests varies by service, they are all based on a similar format. Service members consult with their commanders and make an official request before moving on to the most important step in the process: sit-down conversations with military chaplains. Those chaplains are an important cog in the process, though the sensitive and potentially intimate issues of faith they discuss with members of the ministry behind closed doors remain private.

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

While the details vary depending on an individual employee’s beliefs and specific objection to a vaccine, chaplains have general guidelines they must follow.

In the Navy, for example, the Office’s 2020 Guidance on Handling Exemption Requests includes a “Chapter Interview Checklist Template” to help determine whether a sailor’s religious beliefs “appeared honest and sincere.”

Among the factors chaplains should consider: whether the applicant was credible; whether their “behavior and behavior pattern” are consistent; if they visit a house of worship or otherwise participate in “activities” related to their faith; whether there are other persons who support their claims; and letters or other documentation from an organization that adheres to their faith.

If a chaplain signs the request — an outcome that seems rare, based on past figures and interviews with military officials — he moves further down the chain to uniformed leaders.

However, officials stressed that just because a chaplain endorses a faith-based waiver request does not necessarily mean it has been approved. Military commanders must then weigh that request against other factors, such as whether granting the waiver could harm good order and discipline in the unit or, in the case of COVID-19, could directly lead to potential health risks for fellow service members. .

mr. Timmons, the Houston lawyer, said: to be clients have described the process as “invasive” and “uncomfortable”. chaplains, he added, understand the Pentagon strives to grant as few exemptions as possible.

Again, defense officials strongly oppose that argument, saying that every service member is fully and fairly heard.

But there is little doubt that there are very personal questions at play.

“How often do you go to church? How often do you pray? How long have you been practicing your religion?” mr. Timmons said, referring to the questions he says customers have been asked. “That’s private. That’s something you keep to yourself unless you’re talking on an intimate level with someone you know.”

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