For Army Chaplain Brad Lewis, the last 15 months have seemed like a decade. Within days of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's COVID-19 vaccine mandate in August 2021, Colonel Lewis – who became a chaplain due to religious conviction – requested a religious accommodation to the mandate. His request was denied in February 2022, and within two days he submitted an appeal to the Assistant Secretary of the Army. Eight weeks ago, that, too, was denied.
When he received the denial of his appeal, he was given two options: either voluntarily submit for retirement, or voluntarily get vaccinated. He tells American Family News that he didn't feel he could, in good conscience, step away from "a fight just to save my own skin." To him, both options were unacceptable, explaining he felt it was "immoral" being forced to choose between his faith and his career.
"I would love to have a retirement after the better part of three decades, but if it means the next generation of chaplains and soldiers are able to get a retirement at the expense of mine, then I'm willing to do that," Lewis asserts. "[So] rather than assist in the death of a retirement it took nearly 27 years to earn, I left the ball in the Department of Defense's court to separate me."
Once his appeal was denied, Lewis says, he was immediately labeled a "vaccine refuser." According to Army Directive 2022-02, issued by the Secretary of the Army, Christine Wormuth in January 2022, an officer who refuses to be vaccinated will be involuntarily separated for "misconduct, moral or professional dereliction." And those who are involuntarily separated for this reason are "normally" separated under other-than-honorable conditions according to Army Regulation 600-8-24.
According to Lewis, that characterization of service "carries with it some pretty significant curtailments of veterans benefits."
"Without saying it, they were threatening my retirement," he contends. "It's not just my retirement they were threatening, but the retirement of every other soldier in the Army."
And that, coupled with his religious convictions, compelled him to take the stance he did.
For standing firm, there's cost … or there's reward
As part of the separation process, on Monday Chaplain Lewis was to be given a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand (commonly known as a GOMOR) as a result of his objection to the COVID-19 vaccine and the denial of his accommodation request.
But in the eleventh hour, he was told by his command that the GOMOR would be put on hold until the Senate decides how it will respond to the U.S. House's passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is expected to repeal the military vaccine mandate.
"If someone doesn't stand up and say You can't do this, then it's just going to continue," Lewis contends. "The scope of religious accommodation denials indicates a pretty severe anti-religious bias in the DOD," he says. "And as a chaplain, I had to stand up and say we were not going to play that game."
The chaplain argues that the job of the DOD is not to determine whether an individual's beliefs are valid, but whether they are sincere; and if sincere, the government should accommodate those beliefs, according to the U.S. Constitution, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), NDAA, Army doctrine, and more.
Regardless of the outcome, one thing remains true through it all, according to Lewis: "God is bigger than the Army and is always good."