Lawsuit Alleges Secretary of the Air Force Told Commanders To Reject Religious Exemptions

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Documents filed as part of a federal lawsuit allege that Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, shown, told a room of senior commanders last October that his “expectations concerning religious accommodation requests” was to deny those from members who intended to “remain” in the Air Force. US Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich. Composite by Coffee or Die.

A federal lawsuit alleges that the secretary of the Air Force ordered junior personnel out of a conference room last October in order to tell the service’s senior leaders — including many of the top generals in the Air Force and Space Force — that they were expected to reject COVID-19 religious exemption applications from any airmen “who would be remaining in the Department of the Air Force.”

The accusation comes in a May 3 federal filing as part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 200 Air Force members who refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine, citing religious beliefs. The lawsuit, Doster v. Kendall, presents a claim by “whistleblowers” that Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall or “his designees” delivered those “expectations” at a conference of senior Air Force leaders in October 2021.

The conference, known as the Corona Fall executive conference, is an annual gathering of Air Force and Space Force senior leaders. The event was held at the Air Force Academy in 2021, outside Colorado Springs. A group picture from the conference released by the Air Force confirms Kendall’s presence, along with chief of staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Brown and perhaps two dozen other general officers, most three- or four-star officers. The photo also includes spouses.

Corona Fall conference

Senior Air Force and Space Force leaders and their spouses pose in front of the Eagle and Fledglings statue at the Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Oct. 19, 2021. The leaders were at the academy to attend the Corona Fall executive conference. A federal lawsuit alleges that Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, center wearing a blue tie, told the group of mostly three- and four-star generals that he “expected” applications for religious accommodations for COVID-19 vaccinations to be denied for personnel who expected to remain in the Air Force. US Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich.

Senior Air Force and Space Force leaders and their spouses pose in front of the Eagle and Fledglings statue at the Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Oct. 19, 2021. The leaders were at the academy to attend the Corona Fall executive conference. A federal lawsuit alleges that Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendell, center wearing a blue tie, told the group of mostly three- and four-star generals that he “expected” applications for religious accommodations for COVID-19 vaccinations to be denied for personnel who expected to remain in the Air Force. US Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich.

The filing cites “whistleblowers” as the source of the accusation and does not indicate whether the whistleblowers were present for Kendall’s comments or how else they would have learned of them.

Reached by Coffee or Die Magazine, a spokesperson for the Air Force declined to comment on the allegations, citing its policy of not commenting on ongoing litigation. A spokesperson for Gen. Mark Kelly, the commander of Air Combat Command, also declined to comment, as did the media lead for Air Force Materiel Command, the deputy director of public affairs for Air Force Global Strike Command, the chief of public affairs for Air Force Special Operations Command, the public affairs office for Pacific Air Forces and a spokesperson for Air Education and Training Command.

Coffee or Die sent questions about the Corona meeting to press officers at three other major command headquarters but had not received responses on Thursday afternoon.

The filing alleges that during an unspecified meeting during the Corona event, “all Chaplains and all persons other than those MAJCOM commanders responsible for adjudicating accommodation requests to the Air Force’s vaccine mandate, were asked to leave the room, so that the Secretary of the Air Force’s expectations concerning religious accommodation requests could be communicated to Air Force senior leaders.”

The lawsuit does not claim that Kendall directly ordered the commanders to reject religious requests, but rather that “the Secretary of the Air Force and/or his designees, communicated that no religious accommodations could or should be approved for anyone who would be remaining in the Department of the Air Force.”

Chris Wiest, a lawyer for the 18 original plaintiffs and for 230 other airmen hoping to be added to the suit, told Coffee or Die that if a hearing is granted on this new motion, they will present a “whistleblower” witness, but would not specify any further information on the claim. Wiest previously represented GOP lawmakers Marjorie Taylor Greene, Thomas Massie, and Ralph Norman in their unsuccessful lawsuit against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for imposing a mask mandate on House members.

Doster v. Kendall is yet another lawsuit filed by service members seeking religious exemptions to the military’s vaccine mandate. Lower courts have been split on granting preliminary injunctions to protect the plaintiffs in these cases from punitive action, including separation from the force. But so far, the Supreme Court has held tight to the principle that the power of the executive branch to issue military orders supersedes the religious protections afforded to service members under the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Since March, the Supreme Court has turned down requests for appeal in two cases: Austin v. US Navy SEALs 1-26 and Dunn v. Austin.

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Judge Matthew W. McFarland of the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ordered a preliminary injunction protecting 18 airmen from any punitive action as a result of their refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo courtesy of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Judge Matthew McFarland of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio took the side of the 18 airmen who originally filed Doster v. Kendall in his preliminary ruling at the end of March.

“In this Court’s opinion, assuming the Constitution has taken a holiday, the holiday is long over, and it needs to get back to work, NOW,” McFarland wrote in his order protecting the airmen from being fired while the case wends its way through the courts.

The Air Force previously offered three of the plaintiffs the opportunity to travel overseas to receive a vaccination that had not been derived from fetal cell lines and would therefore not violate their religious opposition to abortion. McFarland dismissed the idea that this would constitute a “significantly lesser burden,” calling it “patently absurd.”

“This case presents the constitutional collision of brave men and women serving in the Air Force sincerely trying to exercise their religious beliefs and their esteemed superiors who have loaded their weapons against them,” McFarland wrote. “The Air Force has put these Airmen in the unconscionable position of choosing between their faith in an eternal God and their career in the United States military.”

The idea that the Air Force is granting religious waivers only to members already headed out of the service lines up with a widely held belief among service members.

As of May 10, the Air Force had approved 60 religious accommodation requests and disapproved 5,884, a 1% approval rate. There were 2,342 still pending adjudication, and 369 active-duty airmen have been separated from the military because of their refusal to get the vaccine.

Note: This article was updated after publication to indicate that additional major command headquarters declined to comment about the allegations.

Read Next: A Navy Destroyer Is Stuck in Port While Its CO Sues Over COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago, a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Commitee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay at home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!
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