Court Protects Airmen in Vax Mandate Fight, ‘Upholds Religious Freedom Rights’

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling that shields airmen from COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The U.S. Air Force had asked the court to toss out a decision that protected the rights of service members, but the court denied that attempt.

The Air Force wanted to remove the court’s injunction since the Department of Defense (DOD) rescinded the vaccine mandate last December. However, the appeals court decided the DOD’s elimination of the mandate was not enough to warrant dissolving the protection.  

As CBN News reported in December, the appeals court unanimously upheld a class-wide injunction protecting the rights of more than 10,000 U.S. Air Force personnel. They were being threatened with discipline or discharge because they refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine due to their religious convictions. 

The three-judge panel had ruled that the U.S. military’s vaccine mandate violated their religious freedom under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). 

In the order for Hunter Doster, et al. v. Hon Frank Kendall, et al., the Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decisions in an opinion by Judge Eric E. Murphy, joined by Judges John K. Bush and Raymond M. Kethledge, and denied the federal government’s appeal to force the entire class of Air Force members to receive COVID-19 shots.

Air Force Petitions Entire Court for Rehearing

In response, the Air Force petitioned for a rehearing before the entire Sixth Circuit bench for the purpose of eliminating the lower court’s ruling. The U.S. military branch challenged the necessity of the injunction, arguing airmen are no longer required to take the shot, and no longer need religious accommodations. 

This time, the Air Force’s petition was reviewed by all 12 judges of the Sixth Circuit Court, and a majority of the court voted to keep the preliminary injunction in place.

The ruling returns the case back to a lower district court to determine whether the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that eliminated the mandate makes the preliminary injunction moot or open to question. 

“This decision upholds the religious freedom rights for all Air Force personnel,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement. 

Appeals Court Judge: ‘Our Opinions Will Stand as Caution’

In the court’s opinion, Judge Kethledge, appointed to the court by President George W. Bush, stated that even if the lower court determines the issue as moot – that the withdrawal of the mandate abates the plaintiff’s claims ending any need for court-ordered relief – vacating the injunction would be an “extraordinary” measure.   

Judge Kethledge wrote, “That a party chooses to comply with our decision is hardly a reason to vacate it. Here, at Congress’s direction, the Air Force has rescinded the vaccine mandate at issue in this suit. The Air Force — by way of a petition for rehearing en banc — now seeks vacatur of our opinions upholding the district court’s preliminary injunctions. Vacatur of our opinions is not a “normal effect” of mootness but an “extraordinary” one…And the Air Force has not even tried to explain why it is entitled to vacatur when the putative mootness here arose from the government’s own actions.”

“All those actions, of course, occurred well after we issued our opinions here,” the judge continued. “Meanwhile, “{j}udicial precedents are presumptively correct and valuable to the legal community as a whole…In this case, our opinions will stand as a caution against violating the Free Exercise rights of men and women in uniform — which, by all appearances, is what the Air Force did here.” 

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