HELENA — Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale from Montana are part of a group of Republican members of Congress who have filed an amicus brief supporting 35 members of the Navy who are suing the government over the COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
Specifically, the naval service members object to receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for religious beliefs due to the use of fetal tissue cells during its research. The lawsuit alleges requiring the vaccine is an infringement of religious freedom protected by the First Amendment.
“The Navy SEALs challenge must be heard by the Supreme Court. This is about protecting the religious liberties of our service members. President Biden’s mandate will force members of our military out of service, and it’s unacceptable. The senator will continue standing with these American heroes.,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Steve Daines in a statement to MTN.
The Navy reports 97% of active-duty sailors are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 ahead of their Dec. 18 deadline for vaccination.
The lawsuit includes 26 Navy SEALs, five special warfare combatant craft crewmen, one explosive ordnance disposal technician, and three Navy divers.
Their objection raises larger questions about the operations of the U.S. Military and its leadership. It’s been long-held, and supported by U.S. Supreme Court Rulings, that the military operates as a “separate society” and leadership can comply certain behavior from service members in order to maintain effectiveness.
The rights granted by the First Amendment are no exception. Active duty military members can be punished for “contemptuous speech” against the President and other leaders, regardless of political affiliation. In Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503 (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the armed forces could prohibit soldiers from wearing religious apparel.
Rep. Matt Rosendale said in a statement to MTN that he is proud to support the brief and it is his duty to protect the religious liberty of Montanans and those who serve our nation in the armed forces.
“Under the First Amendment to the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government (including the military) may only burden the exercise of someone’s religion if they can demonstrate (1) it serves a compelling government interest; and (2) that it is the least restrictive means possible of achieving the compelling interest. I believe the DOD COVID-19 vaccine mandate fulfills neither of these requirements—a blanket mandate with multiple secular exemptions and no religious accommodations certainly is not the least restrictive means. Further, it is hard for me to see how discharging 3,000 trained service members and harming military readiness would be in the government’s compelling interest.”
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said in August the Department of Defense was requiring the COVID vaccine to, “ensure the safety of our service members and promote the readiness of our force.”
Mandatory vaccination requirements for military service are nothing new, and neither is the controversy. In 2003, a federal judge ruled that the military could not require compliance for the Anthrax vaccine because it had not been fully licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although once approved by the FDA, mandatory vaccination could be required. Service members left because of it, and others were submitted for court-martial.
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has been approved by the FDA.
Currently, the Navy has seven permanent medical exemptions, 140 temporary medical exemptions, 158 administrative exemptions, and zero religious accommodation requests for the COVID-19 vaccine approved. There have been 2,844 active duty requests for religious accommodation from immunization for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Ultimately the refusal of the vaccine based on religious objection will be decided by the courts.
“It is my hope that the Supreme Court will share our view of the law and precedent and allow service members with deeply held religious objections to be exempt from this mandate. These heroes have served our country honorably, and I will do everything in my power to ensure they are able to continue to do so without being forced to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs,” added Rosendale in his statement to MTN.
The amicus brief is from nine U.S. senators and 38 U.S. representatives. The full brief can be found below.