Lankford Calls for Audit of Defense Department’s Failure to Provide Religious Accommodations for the COVID-19 Vaccine
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) sent a letter to the Acting Department of Defense (DOD) Inspector General Sean O’Donnell to ask him to audit DOD’s process for reviewing religious accommodation requests for the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Lankford previously sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin demanding to know why, despite 19,979 known requests for religious accommodations from the COVID-19 vaccine, the Department has granted nearly zero requests for religious accommodations among the service branches. The letter requested a response by February 1, and to date, his office has not received a response.
Lankford has taken steps to stop or block every part of Biden’s vaccine mandates. Lankford introduced the COVID-19 Vaccine Dishonorable Discharge Prevention Act to prohibit the Department of Defense from giving service members a dishonorable discharge for choosing not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, which was ultimately solidified in the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act Lankford supported and was signed into law.
Lankford sent a letter to President Biden outlining his concerns with the vaccine mandates and has stood firmly with Oklahoma service members, health care workers, federal employees, and private-sector workers who have chosen so far not to be vaccinated. Lankford called out President Biden and Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for not responding to a letter he sent in September calling on Austin to protect service members from being forced to choose between their sincerely held religious beliefs and serving in our nation’s military or National Guard. Twice, Lankford stood up for the Oklahoma National Guard on the Senate floor after the Administration noted it planned to withhold pay from Guard members who refused the COVID-19 vaccine.
Lankford wrote in his letter, “From the data points on religious accommodations for the COVID-19 vaccine that I have received, it is clear that DOD leaders are ignoring the sincerely-held religious beliefs of service members. Until a few weeks ago, the US military had not approved a single religious accommodation request across all branches. Since then, the Department has informed me they have approved twelve requests—all granted to service members who are already planning to separate from their service—out of thousands of requests…The Department has a constitutional and statutory responsibility to accommodate religious exercise, even exercise with which it disagrees or views as negligible… Further, the Department is required to evaluate all accommodation requests individually to determine whether or not the vaccine is the least restrictive way of burdening a service member’s religious belief.”
You can read the full letter HERE and below:
Dear Acting Inspector General O’Donnell:
I am writing to request that you conduct an audit into the process for reviewing religious accommodation requests for the Department of Defense (DOD) COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Congress has a vested interest in ensuring that DOD is upholding the constitutional rights of our men and women in uniform. Such an audit would aid the oversight responsibilities my colleagues and I have to ensure the Pentagon is working to protect the religious liberty of each of our service members.
From the data points on religious accommodations for the COVID-19 vaccine that I have received, it is clear that DOD leaders are ignoring the sincerely-held religious beliefs of service members. Until a few weeks ago, the US military had not approved a single religious accommodation request across all branches. Since then, the Department has informed me they have approved twelve requests—all granted to service members who are already planning to separate from their service—out of thousands of requests. The US Army still has not granted a single permanent religious accommodation despite thousands of requests. Given DOD’s track record, it is not unreasonable to presume these adjudications were made in an attempt to establish an outward perception of a just process in response to public outrage, rather than the result of credible analysis.
DOD’s religious accommodation approval rate remains below 0.04 percent, which is shocking enough. But the Department has made matters worse by using discriminatory, boilerplate responses in denial letters. Examples shared with my office misapply US law and discredit the sincerity of religious beliefs. In one denial reply shared by a Marine, the Commanding Officer stated that requiring the COVID-19 vaccine “does not substantially burden your sincerely held religious belief.”
Commanding Officers with no legal or spiritual training have no right to dictate what substantially burdens a service member’s sincerely held religious belief. The Department has a constitutional and statutory responsibility to accommodate religious exercise, even exercise with which it disagrees or views as negligible. DOD does not have the legal authority to second-guess the reasonableness of a religious belief or the service member’s assessment of the religious connection between the mandate and his or her underlying belief. Further, the Department is required to evaluate all accommodation requests individually to determine whether or not the vaccine is the least restrictive way of burdening a service member’s religious belief.
DOD’s evasive replies, incomplete data, and continued delays have sparked considerable outrage on Capitol Hill. With this track record of obfuscation and unclear guidance on religious accommodations, Congress passed a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 (P.L. 117-81) calling for the establishment of “uniform standards under which covered members may be exempted from receiving an otherwise mandated COVID-19 vaccine for administrative, medical, or religious reasons.” That directive from Congress should impress upon DOD the seriousness of its behavior, yet no significant improvements have been made.
In light of this troubling fact pattern, I ask that you consider and provide answers to the following questions in an audit:
- What actions is DOD taking to ensure that military leaders who are evaluating religious accommodation requests base such determinations on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and DOD Instruction (DODI) 1300.17, rather than the personal views of DOD leaders?
- Is the DOD evaluating each accommodation request individually? Please evaluate and provide an analysis on the use of boilerplate responses to accommodation requests.
- Please include an analysis of the medical and administrative accommodation request approvals and denials compared to accommodation requests that are religious.
- Has the Department established “uniform standards under which covered members may be exempted from receiving an otherwise mandated COVID-19 vaccine for administrative, medical, or religious reasons,” as required by the FY22 NDAA?
- How does DOD’s religious accommodation adjudication process for service members who anticipate remaining in the military for a number of years differ from those who are nearing retirement?
- Were any service members who were discharged following a denied religious accommodation request subjected to a less than honorable discharge?
- Were chaplains who requested a religious accommodation denied? If so, how many and for what reason were they denied?
As the Acting Inspector General, you are uniquely positioned to examine this issue without fear of reprisal, which continues to silence many concerned service members. I urge you to use your authority to investigate DOD’s clear disregard for the religious liberties of our men and women in uniform. A full examination of the Department’s adjudication process for religious accommodations will only grow more important as the services commence separation.
Thank you for your attention to this matter and I look forward to hearing from you.
In God We Trust,
Next Article Previous Article