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Ahead of COVID mandate deadline, some servicemembers pursue religious waiver

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Medical and religious exemptions are an option for members of the U.S. armed forces who want to continue to serve but not receive the COVID-19 vaccine as the Defense Department’s deadline looms.

Attorney and Army veteran Anthony Kuhn said service members seeking an exemption from the mandate for religious reasons must complete a written submission outlining the purpose for the religious accommodation request.

“The unit chaplain will have input and the local commander will have input (recommendation),” he explained. “That recommendation is forwarded to the higher-level command tasked with approval authority to either accept or deny.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III made receiving the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for service members on Aug. 25 and each of the military services has set a vaccination deadline. (All civilians who work for the Defense Department must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22.)

“The overarching goal is to have all branches of active duty and Reserve vaccinated by mid-2022, but some branches have a far more ambitious deadline, especially for the active-duty component,” explained Kuhn.

Kuhn is a partner in Tully Rinckey’s Buffalo, N.Y. office where he focuses his practice on military and security clearance representation. He is a combat veteran with nearly 25 years of service.

He added that it’s always best to include supporting documentation and recommendations from non-military clergy with the application.

“No one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience,” said Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, who heads the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

According to Broglio, the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines that were tested using an “abortion-derived cell line” are not considered sinful by the Catholic church because it is “remote material cooperation with evil.”

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, “was developed, tested, and is produced, with abortion-derived cell lines,” Broglio said. Catholics still may accept that vaccine, but only if no others are available and they make known their moral objections.

But that may be easier said than done for military service members, cautioned Kuhn.

“As far as the military is concerned, you have no express `right’ at this point to refuse the vaccine absent a waiver or accommodation,” he cautioned. “Your rights after the refusal will depend on the actions taken by the command.”

For example, a military member’s command can discharge an individual who has served less than six years, provided they do so with an Honorable or General Discharge.

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