The Marine Corps announced that it has granted two religious accommodations for Marines refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine as conscientious objectors. These are the only two religious accommodations any branch of the military has granted so far. These waivers come in the midst of at least two class-action lawsuits brought by service members who claim that the military system for granting such waivers is a charade and offered in bad faith.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Texas granted a preliminary injunction that stopped the military from taking any adverse action against servicemembers for refusal to take the vaccine. The judge slammed the Navy for offering a process for requesting a religious accommodation that actually prepares the formal denial within the first five steps of a fifty-step process. The judge also pointed to the fact that not a single waiver had been granted among the thousands that had been received.
This blanket denial of waivers extended to the other services as well, until the Marine Corps granted these first two requests for religious accommodation. These two waivers also represent the first two accommodation requests granted by the Marine Corps for any reason in the last ten years. To date, the Marine Corps has received 3,350 waiver requests for the COVID-19 vaccine and has processed a 3,212. More than 200 Marines who’ve had their requests denied have been discharged.
Across all the service branches there may be as many as 13,000 service members who have applied for religious exemptions with most denied while a small number remain in review status.
The effect these two granted waivers might have on the court cases brought by service members and the government’s appeal of the injunction granted in Texas is hard to say at this point. The DoD may have directed services to try and grant waivers to make its own case look better in the courts given that not a single waiver had ever been granted. However, these two accommodations granted by the Marines could also form the basis of an appeal by the thousands of service members who had their requests initially denied if they could show that their request was similar to those that were approved.
The DoD in enforcing this mandate faces an administrative nightmare of having the proceed with administrative separations proceedings against 13,000 service members who have been denied waivers and presumably will still refuse to take the vaccine. In the last defense budget, Congress inserted an amendment that forbids the military from giving anything but an Honorable discharge to those who object on religious grounds. For service members in their first enlistment, the process normally takes 30-50 days, but service members with more than six years of active duty can fight to be retained in the service in a process that can take many months to play out before a Separation Board hearing. Under normal conditions and staffing levels this is not an issue, but up to 13,000 administrative discharges beginning that process within weeks or months of each other would create considerable strain on resources and personnel. It would also create some serious readiness problems. These 13,000 awaiting separation will exist in a kind of administrative limbo, they cannot deploy or train or occupy their normal place in the unit’s chain of command. NCOs and officers are stripped of their leadership positions. They are given make-work admin jobs. These 13,000 service members are roughly the size of an entire infantry division being set aside and relegated to picking up cigarette butts and handling housing paperwork in the admin department. Given that the military stated that the vaccination mandate was related to increasing readiness of the forces, having this many people sidelined seems to be working against that goal.