Fifth Circuit Refuses to Let Navy Enforce Vaccination Rules Against Religious Objectors
From U.S. Navy Seals 1-26 v. Biden, decided yesterday by the Fifth Circuit (by Judges Edith Jones, Kyle Duncan, and Kurt Engelhardt):
The district court preliminarily enjoined the Department of Defense … from enforcing certain COVID-19 vaccination requirements against 35 Navy special warfare personnel and prohibited any adverse actions based on their religious accommodation requests. It later declined to stay the injunction. Defendants now seek a partial stay pending appeal insofar as the injunction precludes them from considering Plaintiffs’ vaccination statuses “in making deployment, assignment and other operational decisions.” The Navy has granted hundreds of medical exemptions from vaccination requirements, allowing those service members to seek medical waivers and become deployable. But it has not accommodated any religious objection to any vaccine in seven years, preventing those seeking such accommodations from even being considered for medical waivers. We DENY Defendants’ motion….
As the Supreme Court has noted, RFRA affords even “greater protection for religious exercise than is available under the First Amendment” and provides that the:
Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
“[T]he ‘exercise of religion’ often involves not only belief and profession but the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts[.]” And “a government action or regulation creates a ‘substantial burden’ on a religious exercise if it truly pressures the adherent to significantly modify his religious behavior and significantly violates his religious beliefs.” Once a plaintiff demonstrates a substantial burden on his exercise of religion, “RFRA requires the Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of the challenged law ‘to the person’—the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is being substantially burdened.” This already high bar is raised even higher “[w]here a regulation
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