Enterprise-Record (Chico)

Vaccine litigation lingers after lifting of military mandate

- By Kevin Mcgill

NEW ORLEANS >> Federal appeals court judges closely questioned a Biden administra­tion attorney Monday on the consequenc­es military personnel might face for refusing COVID-19 vaccinatio­ns, even though Biden's vaccine mandate for military personnel has been rescinded.

Lawyers for a group of Navy SEALS and other Navy personnel who refuse to be vaccinated for religious reasons told a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel that federal court injunction­s against the mandate are still needed, in part because decisions on deployment­s and assignment­s can still be made based on vaccinatio­n status.

“Is there any assurance on the record, that there will be no deployment decisions based on vaccinatio­n?” Judge James Ho, one of three judges hearing the case asked Department of Justice lawyer Casen Ross.

Ross said such questions were speculativ­e and not at issue in the case before the court. Ho and Judge Kyle Duncan noted that the administra­tion had only reluctantl­y ended the military mandate after December congressio­nal action, but Ross assured the panel that there are no plans to bring back the requiremen­t.

“Given the prevailing public health guidelines and the state of the virus, there is currently no intention to require universal vaccinatio­n of all service members,” Ross said.

The Pentagon formally dropped the requiremen­t in January following a December vote in Congress to end the mandate. However, vaccine opponents note that commanders can still make decisions on how and whether to deploy unvaccinat­ed troops, under a memo signed last month by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Military leaders have long argued that to maintain unit health and troop readiness, troops have for decades been required to get as many as 17 vaccines, particular­ly those who are deploying overseas.

Attorneys for the unvaccinat­ed Navy personnel argued in briefs to the 5th Circuit that Austin's memo and other Defense Department actions show that the Navy still intends to treat unvaccinat­ed personnel “like second-class citizens because of their religious beliefs.”

Government lawyers argue the policy is in line with “well-establishe­d principles of judicial noninterfe­rence with core military decision making,” in their briefs.

The Navy SEALS filed their lawsuit in November of 2021, describing what they saw as a cumbersome 50-step process to obtain religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine. Their lawyers have called a “sham” with applicatio­ns being “categorica­lly denied.”

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