Navy chaplain among sailors denied religious exemption to COVID-19 vaccine mandate: 'Kick in the gut'

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FIRST ON FOX: A chaplain in the U.S. Navy Reserve said Wednesday that the military is being used by the Biden administration as a “nice little test group” that “can’t say no” after he said he was denied a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine.

The chaplain, who spoke with Fox News Digital on the condition of anonymity, said he faces possible dismissal from the Navy after nearly two decades of service due to his refusal to get a vaccine. 

He would miss out on crucial retirement pay and benefits if he’s dismissed before hitting the 20-year mark.

“It’s a kick in the gut for sure,” the chaplain said. “If I lose retirement benefits that way, that would be a pretty significant burden to me and my family. At the same time, this is a fight worth fighting. I do not think this is a lawful order.”

Sailors salute the American flag during the morning playing of the National Anthem before the maiden voyage of the USS San Antonio (LPD-17) amphibious transport dock after her commissioning ceremony. 
(Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

The chaplain, who is also a pastor, said his religious exemption request was recommended for approval by his commanding officer and his commanding officer’s boss, but it was ultimately rejected “at the top.”

“I was actually pleasantly surprised,” he said. “I thought my commander was going to be completely opposed to the request, but when I saw on the paperwork that he actually recommended approval and then his boss also recommended approval – I mean, to me, it’s not about me, it’s a big Navy thing. I think the commanders on the ground, many of them see this for what it is, but our hands are tied, and we have a lot of yes men at the top. It’s really bad.”

In addition to discussions with chaplains to determine whether they have a “sincerely held belief,” troops must meet with commanders and medical personnel, and then the final decision is made higher up the chain of command. The Navy has not approved any of the thousands of requests for religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine.

The rejection letter the chaplain received from Vice Admiral John B. Nowell Jr., provided to Fox News Digital, said, “Your request for religious accommodation through waiver of immunization requirements is disapproved.”

“A waiver of immunizations would have a predictable and detrimental effect on your readiness and the readiness of the Sailors who serve alongside you in both operational and non-operational (including training) environments,” the letter stated, in part. “I find that disapproval of your request for a waiver of immunization requirements is the least restrictive means available to preserve the Department of Defense’s compelling interest in military readiness, mission accomplishment and the health and safety of military service members.

“The Navy is a specialized community governed by a discipline separate from that of the rest of society,” the letter added. “While every Sailor is welcome to express a religion of choice or none at all, our greater mission sometimes requires reasonable restrictions. You have my sincere best wishes for your continued success in your Navy career.”

The chaplain said the letter of rejection was nearly identical to the other letters he’s seen.

“You can hold each of these up to the light, and they look exactly like everyone else,” he said. 

The chaplain pointed to the U.S. Marine Corps, which recently approved religious accommodations for three Marines while rejecting thousands more.

One active-duty Marine with a legal background who recently spoke with Fox News Digital said the Corps granted those exemptions just to give the appearance that the religious rights of service members are being respected and to “alleviate some of the pressure off of themselves.” That officer said, however, that the Corps has not disclosed exactly why those Marines’ requests were granted approval so that others can follow suit. 

A United States Marine receives the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at Camp Foster April 28, 2021, in Ginowan, Japan. 
(Carl Court/Getty Images)

The officer said at least a “dozen or so” chaplains in the Marines have also been denied a religious exemption.

“That they’re getting away with it just absolutely astounds me,” the chaplain said. “I would have thought that if you grant one, you have to grant everyone, because or else they are picking and choosing which religion is valid and who’s Constitutional rights under the First Amendment will be honored and whose will not. It’s offensive to me as someone who loves the Constitution.”

“The whole thing is shrouded in secrecy,” he added.

The chaplain said he has filed an appeal and that it is still pending along with many others.

“Nobody knows quite what to do with us while we’re waiting for all of these appeals to be adjudicated,” he said. “I am in limbo. I’m waiting to hear back on the appeal. Meanwhile, we’re all sort of second-class citizens because we haven’t had the jab.”

He said he believes service members are being used as “test subjects” with a vaccine that’s is still being studied.

“I honestly think that the push for 100% vaccination has to do with eliminating anything that looks like a control group,” he said. “I think that there’s probably money involved somewhere. I think that the military has been a nice little test group, a set of test subjects that really can’t say no.”

The CDC has repeatedly said that the vaccines are safe for use, and studies have shown that unvaccinated COVID patients are far more likely to die from the virus than vaccinated patients. 

Soldiers file paperwork before being administered their COVID-19 vaccinations by Army Preventative Medical Services Sept. 9, 2021, at Fort Knox, Kentucky. 
(Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Last month, a federal judge in Texas granted a preliminary injunction stopping the Navy from acting against 35 sailors who refused on religious grounds to comply with the vaccine mandate. However, there was no indication that the order would affect service members beyond those 35 sailors.

Judge Reed O’Connor, in issuing the order, said, “There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”

The Navy did not respond to Fox News Digital request for comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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