Judge OKs Class Action Suit for Sailors Refusing Navy Vaccine Mandate

A federal judge has allowed a class-action lawsuit from U.S. Navy sailors claiming religious exemptions to the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate to move forward.

U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor's Monday ruling also temporarily blocked the Navy from punishing or discharging approximately 4,000 sailors who have refused the vaccines on religious grounds. O'Connor found that the sailors covered in the class action shared key similarities with a group of 35 sailors who had previously sued over the mandate—a group that he granted a preliminary injunction against being punished for refusing the vaccine in January.

"Even though their personal circumstances may factually differ in small ways, the threat is the same—get the jab or lose your job," wrote O'Connor, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, the Associated Press reported.

Last Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the scope of O'Connor's earlier decision, ruling that the Navy could use vaccination status when determining deployment, assignments, and operational decisions. Monday's ruling does not contradict the Supreme Court's decision, allowing the Navy to take the same actions against sailors refusing the vaccine in the class action group.

Vaccine Mandate Religious Exemption Navy Class Action
A federal judge in Texas allowed a class-action lawsuit involving 4,000 U.S. Navy sailors claiming religious objections to the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate to move forward. Above, a vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured in this photo taken in Santiago, Chile, on January 10, 2022. AVIER TORRES/AFP/Getty

"No service member should face discipline or punishment for following their faith," Mike Berry, General Counsel of First Liberty Institute, the conservative Christian nonprofit group that filed the suit, said in a statement. "The fact that the military continues to demonstrate hostility to anyone who expresses religious objection to the vaccine mandate shows that the Biden Administration does not care about religious freedom."

"The lawsuit seeks to protect as many service members as possible from further punishment," Berry added. "We have to put a stop to this before any more harm is done to our national security."

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered that all members of the military be vaccinated against COVID-19 last year. Although thousands have requested exemptions from the mandate on religious grounds, only a tiny fraction of the requests have been approved.

Although major religions largely do not have any theological objections to vaccination, O'Connor wrote in his January decision that the sailors requesting the religious exemptions were "undisputedly sincere" in their religious convictions, while noting that it was "not the role of this court to determine their truthfulness or accuracy."

The Navy approved its first religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate in February. Others have been given temporary waivers against the requirement or exemptions based on religious grounds. O'Connor has described the exemption approval process as "theatre."

Over 99 percent of active-duty Navy sailors had been vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to the AP, while a least 650 others have been discharged for refusing to be vaccinated.

Newsweek reached out to the Department of Defense for comment.