Nearly 10,000 military members seek religious waivers from COVID vaccine; none approved so far

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Nearly 10,000 U.S. military personnel have applied for religious waivers to avoid the COVID-19 vaccine but so far not a single one has been approved, publicly available Pentagon data show. This potentially paves the way for thousands of service members to be booted from the force in the coming months.

The stunning number of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines arguing that their faith — or a deeply held moral conviction — should allow them to skip the shot underscores just how controversial the coronavirus vaccine remains both inside the military and in American society as a whole. Faith-based exemptions from vaccines, grooming standards and other military policies have been in place for decades, but each service has acknowledged that the number of men and women seeking religious waivers for COVID-19 immunization far exceeds anything seen before.

The Navy released its most recent numbers late Tuesday following its Nov. 28 vaccination deadline. Just over 97% of sailors have received at least one dose of the vaccine, figures show, leaving more than 9,000 unvaccinated.

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Of those, 2,531 have applied for a religious waiver. Not one has been approved so far.

Sailors who are denied a religious exemption can appeal, but if their appeal is denied they’ll need to get vaccinated or face expulsion from the force. 

The Navy, like other military services, is mounting an aggressive crackdown on the unvaccinated. And evidence suggests that the Pentagon has no intention of allowing the resistance in the ranks from getting in the way of its goal.

“In order to ensure a fully vaccinated force, U.S. Navy policy is to process for separation all Navy service members who refuse the lawful order to receive the COVID-19 vaccination and do not have an approved exemption,” the Navy said in a fact sheet accompanying its most recent vaccination numbers. “All waiver requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and each request will be given full consideration with respect to the facts and circumstances submitted in the request.”

Analysts say the waivers on faith grounds may be hard to sustain, as service personnel have long been required to get vaccines for other diseases. Religious leaders such as Pope Francis and top Protestant officials have also urged believers to get the vaccine and have refused to condemn the mandates.

So far, the Navy has granted seven permanent medical exemptions and 400 temporary medical exemptions. 

Not all of the religious waiver applications have been processed, Navy officials told The Washington Times on Wednesday. It’s unclear exactly when all sailors seeking an exemption will get an answer, but no one will be pushed out of the service until those requests are heard.

As each individual service pushes to vaccinate its members, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also has demonstrated little willingness to budge on the issue. On Tuesday, Mr. Austin sent a letter to Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has sought to block Mr. Austin’s vaccine mandate for personnel in the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard. 

Mr. Austin said that any National Guard troops who refuse to get the vaccine won’t be paid.

“As I’ve said before, vaccination of the force will save lives and is essential to our readiness,” he said in a memo laying out the new National Guard policy.

Meanwhile, other services also are grappling with an unprecedented number of religious waiver requests as they seek to vaccinate their personnel.

The Marine Corps has a vaccination rate of about 95%, leaving an estimated 9,000 Marines unvaccinated, the most recent data show. At least 316 Marines have gotten a temporary medical exemption. Another 452 have been granted a temporary administrative exemption, while 14 Marines have received a permanent medical exemption.

Over 2,400 Marines have filed religious waiver requests. As of Monday evening, about 1,900 had been processed and none had been approved. 

Like the Navy, the Marine Corps also has said that service members who refuse the vaccine without a valid exemption will be removed from the force.

The Air Force has received more than 4,900 religious waiver requests. They’re expected to be processed by Thursday.

The Army’s vaccination deadline is Dec. 15. Army officials haven’t revealed how many waiver requests they’ve received.

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