Supreme Court Rules Against Navy SEALs on Vaccine Mandate Affecting Duty Status

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A Navy SEAL candidate does log physical therapy during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt.

The Supreme Court ruled Friday, March 25, that the Navy had the right to refuse to deploy a group of 26 Navy SEALs and nine other special operators who had not received a COVID-19 vaccine. The ruling reverses a court order the SEALs won in January in which a federal judge said the Navy had to continue to deploy them on regular duty.

All 35 sailors had previously been denied religious accommodations to avoid the vaccine.

The appeal, Austin v. US Navy Seals 1-26, arrived at the Supreme Court after the initial ruling against the Navy in US Navy SEALs 1-26 v. Biden was upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in February. In an unsigned order Friday, the Court reversed the injunction “insofar as it precludes the Navy from considering respondents’ vaccination status in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh issued a concurring opinion, writing, “In this case, the District Court, while no doubt well-intentioned, in effect inserted itself into the Navy’s chain of command, overriding military commanders’ professional military judgments.

“The president of the United States, not any federal judge, is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.”

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Navy SEALs conduct high altitude, low opening (HALO) airborne operations in support of exercise Arctic Edge 2022 in Deadhorse, Alaska, on March 10, 2022. US Army photo by Sgt. Stefan English.

Navy SEALs conduct High Altitude Low Opening airborne operations in support of exercise Arctic Edge 2022 in Deadhorse, Alaska, on March 10, 2022. Army photo by Sgt. Stefan English

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch dissented, with Alito writing that the court was merely “rubberstamping” the government’s request.

In January, Judge Reed O’Connor of the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas granted a preliminary injunction preventing the Navy from taking any punitive actions against the special operations troops while their case made its way through the courts. Under O’Connor’s order, the SEALs and others could not be punished, reassigned or separated, nor taken off of deployable duty status.

“The Navy service members in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect,” O’Connor wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”

vaccine seals

Chief Navy Counselor Agnieszka Grzelczyk, from Navy Talent Acquisition Group Philadelphia, receives the COVID-19 vaccine at New Jersey’s Naval Weapons Station Earle on March 10, 2021. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Diana Quinlan.

The Supreme Court decision came just as all four military branches ramped up the number of troops kicked out for refusing COVID-19 vaccinations, while approved religious accommodations remain vanishingly rare.

According to the latest numbers compiled by Coffee or Die Magazine on the active-duty forces from all four services, only 31 total religious accommodations have been granted out of 18,512 requests — a rate of 0.17%.

The Marine Corps has removed the most, with 1,329 Marines now separated — that’s far more than the number of those kicked out of the other three services combined. The Marines have approved six religious exemptions, according to Capt. Andrew Wood, communication strategy officer for the Marine Corps Communication Directorate, out of 3,664 requests.

The Army has approved just two religious exemptions out of 4,034, and has separated only 27 soldiers.

The Air Force has separated 222 airmen while approving just 23 religious exemptions out of 7,494.

The Navy has processed 652 separations from the service, and has yet to approve any religious exemptions out of 3,320.

The Air Force, Navy, and Marines all set vaccination deadlines in November 2021, while the Army’s was Dec. 15, 2021.

The Navy noted in its most recent release of vaccine numbers that all separated sailors received honorable discharges, other than those who were still in initial phases of training and received entry level separations.

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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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