By Jack Phillips
The Pentagon said it would continue to require that troops get COVID-19 vaccines even as Republican senators threaten to hold up the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) unless the Defense Department ends its vaccine mandate.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder claimed the controversial mandate is needed for U.S. national security purposes.
“As a warfighting organization, the health and readiness of our force is paramount. Vaccination for COVID is still a requirement,” Ryder told reporters at a news conference in response to a question about the legislation. He also refused to comment on Republican senators’ threats to withhold the NDAA.
“We’re going to ensure that our forces are properly vaccinated to be able to carry out their wartime mission,” Ryder added. “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals” about whether the NDAA gets blocked in Congress, he said.
Earlier this week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and about 19 other senators said they would not vote for new defense spending if the mandate is in effect. The mandate, he argued, doesn’t make sense because COVID-19 vaccines do not prevent transmission of the virus and younger people face an elevated risk of heart inflammation from the shots.
While the U.S. military has required vaccines for soldiers, Paul said that the COVID-19 mandate is different. Since it was imposed last year by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, it has faced a number of lawsuits from U.S. armed service members, including Navy SEALs and officers, who have claimed that the Pentagon has not honored guidance to grant religious exemptions to the vaccines.
“We’re taking action today by saying we will not vote to get on the NDAA—the defense authorization bill—unless we have a vote on ending this military vaccine mandate. That’s it,” Paul told reporters on Nov. 30. “Some will argue that the vaccine mandate in the military is not new. That is correct,” he added.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that military recruitment has been poor in recent months and blamed it, in part, on the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The U.S. Army missed its 2022 recruitment goal, for example, according to military officials.
“I want to urge [the Department of Defense] to change their policy. It literally is insane, I think, to drive men and women out of the military at the time we have recruiting shortages because of their refusal to take this vaccine,” Graham said earlier in the week.
“At the same time, we’ve had millions of people coming to the country illegally without vaccination that are being sent by our own government all over the country,” the Republican senator added. “This is not lost on most people. You’re kicking somebody out of the military who’s willing … because they won’t take a shot and you’re letting people come in by the millions unvaccinated.”
Earlier this week, meanwhile, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld (pdf) an injunction against the U.S. Air Force’s order to penalize service members who have rejected getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Plaintiffs in the case have argued the mandate violates their religious freedom and First Amendment rights.
Noting that some 10,000 Air Force members have requested religious exemptions from the mandate, the court said that the “Air Force has granted only about 135 of these requests and only to those already planning to leave the service,” adding that it has “granted thousands of other exemptions for medical reasons (such as a pregnancy or allergy) or administrative reasons (such as a looming retirement).”
“Finding that these claims would likely succeed, the district court granted a preliminary injunction that barred the Air Force from disciplining the Plaintiffs for failing to take a vaccine. But its injunction did not interfere with the Air Force’s operational decisions over the Plaintiffs’ duties. The court then certified a class of thousands of similar service members and extended this injunction to the class,” it said.
The Air Force under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act “wrongly relied on its ‘broadly formulated’ reasons for the vaccine mandate to deny specific exemptions to the Plaintiffs, especially since it has granted secular exemptions to their colleagues,” the court added.