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Judge halts Air Force from punishing members over religious exemptions

A federal judge is ordering U.S. Air Force officials to stop punishing service members who are seeking religious exemptions over the covid vaccine.

U.S. District Judge Matthew McFarland, a Trump appointee, entered a preliminary injunction against the Air Force for its often draconian and punitive actions against enlisted personnel. It comes after McFarland earlier issued a temporary restraining order. He asked the military to make its case as to why he should not enter a preliminary injunction, a longer-lasting measure.

In a 16-page filing, Biden administration lawyers said blocking the military from punishing unvaccinated members “would interfere with ongoing legal proceedings and would otherwise be improper, particularly in light of significant new developments.”

Among the developments, they pointed to: U.S. drug regulators authorizing a COVID-19 vaccine made by Novavax. Unlike the three shots previously available in the United States, the Novavax vaccine did not use fetal cells in its development, manufacturing, or production.

READ: New England Journal of Medicine says vaccine increases covid risk

“Those class members whose religious objections were based on mRNA technology or the use of fetal-derived cell lines are no longer substantially burdened by the COVID-19 vaccine requirement because this option is now available,” the lawyers said.

Included in the opposition was a declaration from Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, the director of staff for the Air Force’s headquarters. He claimed that unvaccinated members “are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and substantially more likely to develop severe symptoms resulting in hospitalization or death” and that exempting a large number of airmen “would pose a significant and unprecedented risk to military readiness and our ability to defend the nation.”

New data, however, shows vaccinated individuals are at near the same risk as unvaccinated for contracting the virus.

Chris West, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, called the ruling “such a big win!!!” on Twitter.

The Air Force has approximately 497,000 members. Of those, 97.1 percent have received a primary series of a COVID-19 vaccine as of July 11.

About 1,440 exemptions to the mandate have been granted, including 104 religious exemptions. Another 2,847 are pending, and 6,803 have been rejected.

Under the new order, the Air Force cannot take disciplinary action, or attempt to kick out, members who have requested a religious exemption on or after Sept. 1, 2021; who were deemed by an Air Force chaplain as having a “sincerely held religious belief.” Most military members who apply do and were either denied or have not had action on their request.

The Navy and Army have also been criticized for punishing service members over vaccination requirements.

–Wire services

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