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Injunction Against Navy Vax Rule Remains as SEALs Suit Plays Out

March 2, 2022, 5:05 PM

The Biden administration failed to convince a federal appeals court to pause an injunction barring it from enforcing Covid-19 vaccination requirements against 35 Navy special operations forces who are challenging the rules on religious grounds.

A federal court in Texas enjoined enforcement of President Joe Biden’s vaccine directive for the military as applied to the 35 naval service members in early January, and the judge later denied the government’s request to stay enforcement of the injunction to avoid disrupting naval operations and missions. The evidence supported that denial, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said.

The plaintiffs are members of various Christian denominations and include more than two dozen Navy SEALs. They showed they’re likely to prevail on the merits of their claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause, the appeals court said.

They say Navy commanders aren’t considering their religious accommodation requests on an individual basis and are instead categorically denying them.

The evidence shows that’s likely true, despite the plaintiffs explaining and documenting their sincerely held religious beliefs, the Fifth Circuit said.

The vaccine rules also impose a substantial burden on the plaintiffs because the rules conflict with their faiths and livelihoods, as service members risk a range of disciplinary actions for not being vaccinated, it said.

The government failed to overcome that showing with evidence of its institutional interests in reducing the Covid exposure and risks for service members generally, the court said.

At least 99.4% of Navy service members are vaccinated, and there’s no evidence the Navy has needed to evacuate service members from missions due to Covid-19 since the vaccine rules were implemented. The plaintiffs and other service members also already “engage in life-threatening actions” with risks equal to or greater than those presented by Covid, the court said.

And several of the plaintiffs have deployed successfully overseas by relying on social distancing and other safety measures, both before and after the vaccine rules took effect, it said.

The Navy has also granted temporary medical exemptions to special warfare service members and has provided no reason for distinguishing medical exemptions from religious accommodation requests, of which he has thus far granted none, the court said.

The government further failed to show it risks irreparable harm if the injunction remains in place as the suit moves forward, the court said.

The injunction doesn’t prevent the Navy from making deployment decisions, it only prevents the use of religious accommodation requests as a negative factor in such decisions, the court said.

The court rejected the Biden administration’s contention that the dispute between it and the plaintiffs is justiciable.

Judges Edith H. Jones, Stuart Kyle Duncan, and Kurt D. Engelhardt joined the unsigned opinion.

Hacker Stephens LLP and First Liberty Institute represent the service members. The Justice Department represents the government.

The case is U.S. Navy Seals 1-26 v. Biden, 2022 BL 66729, 5th Cir., No. 22-10077, 2/28/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com