05.17.22

Lankford Defends Discharged American Sailors Against Biden’s Vaccine Mandate

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro to urge them to allow sailors separated from the US Navy for deciding not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and who were not granted a religious accommodation to return to service. His letter comes after a court’s preliminary injunction blocked the Navy from continuing its misguided policy of separating sailors who were denied religious accommodation requests.

Lankford wrote in his letter, “As of today, the Navy has approved only 27 religious accommodation requests for the COVID-19 vaccine despite receiving over 4,300 requests. Bearing in mind this blatant disregard for faith-based objections to the vaccine, according to the Navy they have approved ‘798 total separations based on COVID-19 vaccination refusal,’ and ‘at least 84 personnel with previously disapproved religious accommodation requests have completed the discharge process.’ At the time of this letter other sailors had been notified that their accommodation request has been denied, but they have not yet been discharged. American taxpayers and the US military have devoted considerable time and resources to train each of these sailors for their service. As I have said repeatedly, it is difficult to see how removing hundreds of sailors from the Navy—when almost half of Americans have already been infected with COVID-19—improves our military readiness and serves the national interest.”

Lankford continues to defend service members against Biden’s vaccine mandate. He recently joined Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and 12 of their colleagues to introduce the Allowing Military Exemptions, Recognizing Individual Concerns About New Shots (AMERICANS) Act of 2022. The bill counters the Biden Administration’s efforts to coerce and punish service members who decline the COVID-19 vaccine and introduces accountability measures in response to DOD efforts to undermine transparency.

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, which Lankford supported and was signed into law. 

Regarding religious accommodations for service members, 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 had granted nearly zero religious accommodations among the service branches. The letter requested a response by February 1. When he did not receive a timely response, Lankford requested that the Acting Department of Defense (DOD) Inspector General Sean O’Donnell conduct an audit of DOD’s COVID-19 vaccine exemption process, and the IG responded 10 days later that an audit would be conducted.

Lankford was joined by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and their colleagues to send a letter to Secretary Austin asking him to provide information on the number and nature of military discharges for not receiving a COVID vaccine.

You can read the full letter HERE and below:

Dear Secretary Austin and Secretary Del Toro:

I am writing to urge you to welcome back into the service sailors separated from the US Navy for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds. In light of US District Judge Reed O’Connor’s order on March 28, 2022, the Department of Defense (DOD) and US Navy should apply its stated policy of protecting sailors from separation and discipline retroactively. Failing to take this step will penalize sailors already removed from the Navy simply because their claims were adjudicated prior to the court’s order.

In recent days, the US Navy paused efforts to separate and discipline sailors refusing the COVID-19 vaccine due to religious objections. Specifically, NAVADMIN 083/22 “suspends separation processing and adverse administrative consequences of COVID-19 vaccine refusal for Navy service members who submitted requests for religious accommodation from the COVID-19 vaccine requirement.” This new guidance followed District Judge O’Connor’s decision to allow the lawsuit brought by 35 sailors refusing inoculation on religious grounds to move forward as a class action lawsuit.

Now that the preliminary injunction in the lawsuit is rightly preventing the Navy from applying its previous misguided policy of separating sailors who were denied religious accommodation requests, the Navy should extend its new policy to cover sailors who have already been unjustly separated. Sailors should not face a different set of rules based on circumstances beyond their control.

As of today, the Navy has approved only 27 religious accommodation requests for the COVID-19 vaccine despite receiving over 4,300 requests. Bearing in mind this blatant disregard for faith-based objections to the vaccine, according to the Navy they have approved “798 total separations based on COVID-19 vaccination refusal,” and “at least 84 personnel with previously disapproved religious accommodation requests have completed the discharge process.” At the time of this letter other sailors had been notified that their accommodation request has been denied, but they have not yet been discharged. American taxpayers and the US military have devoted considerable time and resources to train each of these sailors for their service. As I have said repeatedly, it is difficult to see how removing hundreds of sailors from the Navy—when almost half of Americans have already been infected with COVID-19—improves our military readiness and serves the national interest. Even sailors who have received the COVID-19 vaccine can and do test positive for COVID-19. So, sailors with or without the vaccine can catch COVID-19 and transmit it to others.

With these considerations in mind, I urge you to reinstate sailors who have been separated after being denied religious accommodations to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Additionally, please address the following questions:

  1. As of today, how many sailors who were separated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, were denied religious accommodations prior to separation?
  2. Will DOD welcome back sailors separated from the military if the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is lifted?
  3. Will you commit to allowing sailors who have retired in response to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate to return to the service as COVID-19 wanes?

I hope you will agree that preventing sailors who have been separated due to non-compliance with the vaccine mandate after their religious accommodation request was denied from rejoining the Navy, while allowing current sailors with religious objections to the vaccine to remain would be unjust. I urge you to take immediate action to prevent this unequal impact on our sailors. 

Thank you for your attention to this important issue.

In God We Trust, 

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