On Monday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas expanded that lawsuit – as well as the preliminary injunction the court issued in January – to now prevent punishment of any Navy personnel who (1) have religious objections to the DoD's vaccine mandate and (2) have requested a religious accommodation from the mandate.
In his decision, Judge Reed O'Connor stated:
"Here, the potential class members have suffered the 'same injury,' arising from violations of their constitutional rights. Each has submitted a religious accommodation request, and each has had his request denied, delayed, or dismissed on appeal. Exactly zero requests have been granted. And while Defendants encourage this Court to disregard the data, it is hard to imagine a more consistent display of discrimination. As previously explained in this Court's preliminary injunction order, Plaintiffs have suffered the serious injury of infringement of their religious liberty rights under RFRA and the First Amendment."
"This order vindicates religious free exercise protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment which the Department of Defense has violated with this unlawful COVID shot mandate. This is a great victory for religious freedom, especially for these Navy service members who love God and love America. We commend this Texas court for recognizing the unconstitutional way the military is treating these honorable service members."
Mat Staver, founder and chairman
The original injunction was issued in favor of dozens of elite Navy SEALs. Mike Berry of First Liberty Institute explains that from the get-go, his legal group hoped to support more than the roughly three dozen elite Navy personnel in the original lawsuit – and specifically asked O'Connor to allow that.
"We knew early on that we wanted to expand the relief from just the 35 SEALs that we represent," Berry tells AFN. "We wanted to help as many people as we could. So, we submitted a motion to the judge asking him to expand this to a class action for the entire Navy – and that's what he did."
Berry, who is director of military affairs for First Liberty, says according to the latest data more than 4,000 sailors have requested religious exemptions from the vaccine mandate.
"I think the law is in our favor – and the facts are in our favor … so I have a high degree of confidence," the attorney shares. "I mean, no lawyer is ever going to tell you that they're a hundred percent confident – but I feel as strongly about this case as I have about any other case that we have. We just need to make sure that the judges are also in our favor."
Berry expects it will still be several months before the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules on their case.
'Domino effect' expected
Liberty Counsel is another law firm that's filed suit against the Biden vaccine mandates on military personnel.
"All the courts that have reviewed this matter have concluded the same thing: there's this blanket disapproval, [this] denial of all these religious accommodation requests," says Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.
"And frankly, these people are abusively treated – they are threatened, they are intimidated, [and] they have unbelievable kinds of pressure that's placed on them to get these shots or to forego their religious convictions."
Staver expects Judge O'Connor's ruling to impact his firm's case.
"… In this case where the class certification is applicable to the Navy, I think we're going to see that domino effect going to the other five branches of the military outside of the Navy, which includes the Space Force as well," he tells AFN. "And that's what our goal is in our case, Navy SEAL 1 v. Austin … which covers all branches of the military."
On Wednesday, the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a request by the Department of Defense to set aside a preliminary injunction issued in Navy SEAL 1 v. Austin.
3/31/2022 - Section titled 'Domino effect' added.