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Air Force members denied religious exemptions to COVID vaccine file lawsuit to stop punishment, terminations

A federal lawsuit has been filed on behalf of multiple Air Force service members seeking protections against punishment by the military after they were denied religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Fist Liberty Institute and law firm Schaerr Jaffe LLP filed the lawsuit against the Department of Defense and the Air Force on Friday afternoon on behalf of the service members, who represent about 2% of the Air Force members who have not been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The filing alleges that the Department of Defense is violating the First Amendment rights of the service members by imposing a vaccine mandate that “substantially burdens” free exercise of religion, despite granting hundreds of administrative and medical exemptions. In addition, the lawsuit argues that the government does not have a compelling interest and has not provided service members other less restrictive manners in which to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“At a time of instability and ever-increasing threats around the world, you’d think the Pentagon would want every service member at their post. But instead, military leaders are forcing tens of thousands of our bravest out of the service because they’ve chosen to live according to their faith,” First Liberty Institute’s Mike Berry told Fox News Digital. 

LAWSUIT FILED ON BEHALF OF NAVY SEALS FACING INTIMIDATION FOR SEEKING RELIGIOUS COVID-19 VACCINE EXEMPTIONS

“Punishing these servicemembers for seeking religious accommodation is illegal, vindictive, and wrong. Religious liberty is essential to national security, and our servicemembers deserve better.” 

Danielle Runyan, an Air Force reserve member and one of the plaintiffs in the case, is also serving as counsel for First Liberty in this case. She is currently serving her two-week reserve duty, but faces involuntary separation after being denied religious accommodation to the vaccine.

An airman assigned to the Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi died Wednesday during an incident on base that also injured three people, officials said. 

She said in a statement to Fox News Digital: “Like many servicemembers, I want to continue faithfully serving my country as I have proudly done for the past 10 years. As the Supreme Court has already recognized, ‘even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.’”

In March, the Supreme Court temporarily granted the Pentagon’s request to limit the deployment of unvaccinated active U.S. military members who refused to get COVID shots based on religious grounds.

FILE - This May 4, 2020, photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows SEAL candidates participating in "surf immersion" during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training at the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Center in Coronado, Calif. U.S. Navy SEALs are undergoing a major transition to improve leadership and expand their commando capabilities. (MC1 Anthony Walker/U.S. Navy via AP)

The original lawsuit was brought by a group of 35 Navy SEALs and other Navy Special Warfare personnel. A lower court had granted a preliminary injunction to block the Pentagon from enforcing its vaccination policy.

The Air Force did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment on the lawsuit.

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