Military ‘Rushed’ Denials of Religious Exemption from COVID Vaccines

The Pentagon's Inspector General is "concerned" over the pace of rejections.

Airman 1st Class Thadyn DuPont, an aerospace medical technician with the 137th Special Operations Medical Group, prepares to administer a coronavirus vaccine for an Oklahoma National Guard soldier at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Norman, Okla., on Jan. 15, 2021. (Andrew LaMoreaux/U.S. Air National Guard photo)
Andrew LaMoreaux/U.S. Air National Guard photo

Steve Beynon and Konstantin Toropin reporting for Military.com: “Pentagon Likely Rushed Denials of COVID-19 Vaccine Religious Exemption Requests, Watchdog Finds.”

The military may have moved too fast denying religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination. The Pentagon’s inspector general warned that mass denials of religious exemption requests were “concerning,” according to an internal memo obtained by Military.com.

“We found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies,” Sean O’Donnell, the Pentagon’s inspector general, said in the June 2 memo to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “Some of the appellate decisions included documentation that demonstrated a greater consideration of facts and circumstances involved in a request.”

The watchdog said that military officials likely spent only minutes reviewing exemption requests, providing potential grounds for legal challenges to the denial decisions.

“The volume and rate at which decisions were made to deny requests is concerning,” the memo said. “Assuming a 10-hour work day with no breaks or attention to other matters, the average review period was about 12 minutes for each package. Such a review period seems insufficient to process each request in an individualized manner and still perform the duties required of their position.”

Two caveats up front. First, I have not read the IG report, so I’m basing my judgments only on this reporting. Second, I’m by no means an expert in the legal issues here.

Still, while the Defense Department and its individual services should absolutely follow the law, it seems absurd on its face that “individualized assessment” can’t be generalized the face of a mass movement. If 8,514 people are making the same argument as to why they merit a religious exemption, surely it makes no sense to treat these de novo.

For that matter, given that the requirement was pursuant to a Presidential directive and implemented via an order from the Secretary of Defense on the basis of risk to mission, it strikes me as perfectly reasonable to simply rule out religious objection altogether. This is especially the case given that 1) no significant religious denomination objects to vaccinations per so or these vaccines in particular and 2) the ostensible basis for these “individual” objections are fictitious.

In the military, service members are required to be vaccinated against at least a dozen ailments, ranging from the flu to smallpox. The only way to be excused is through a religious waiver or an even more rare medical exemption — reserved for extreme and rare cases such as if a service member is known to be at risk of myocarditis, a rare heart inflammation side effect of COVID vaccination.

The COVID-19 vaccines were politicized almost immediately by conservative pundits and some Republican lawmakers after being made available. Critics argued, without evidence, that the vaccines did not work or were broadly dangerous themselves, points that have been refuted by ostensibly every medical study.

Most religious objections are due to the use of fetal tissue in COVID-19 vaccine research. While researchers did use cell lines derived from elective abortion tissue originally created decades ago, that tissue was used to produce proteins for testing and wasn’t put directly into the vaccine.

In addition, a vaccine that did not use fetal tissue in any part of its development, Novavax, was approved by the FDA, and subsequently the Pentagon, in August. Spokespeople for both the Navy and Marine Corps have confirmed to Military.com that the vaccine is available to their servicemembers.

Now, in fairness, last month was a wee bit late for those who were discharged for their refusal to follow a lawful order prior to that. Still, the larger objection to the farce of religious exemptions for routine vaccination stands.

Indeed, the source of the objections, in almost all cases, was pure quackery.

Exemption requests among military members have been a point of controversy and debate since the introduction of the vaccine mandate, and at times have pitted religious leaders against those in their flock.

Andrew Torba, the head of Gab.com – a far-right social media network that gained notoriety for being actively used by the man who was charged with killing 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 — wrote in a 2021 newsletter that he “stumbled upon a set of religious exemption documents that the creator calls an ‘air tight religious exemption request’ for the COVID vaccine if it is mandatory for you at work, school, or in the military.”

The military template Torba offered was a 21-page document that argued the Eastern Orthodox church was against the vaccine. However, leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church in America said the opposite – there was no exemption needed from them on the vaccine.

Pope Francis has similarly encouraged vaccination and so have leaders in IslamOne research paper even concluded that getting vaccinated was “actually a form of compliance with Sharia law.”

Other service members have told Military.com that they sourced their exemption paperwork from secretive and hidden Facebook groups, sometimes citing arguments from people like Lt. Col.Theresa Long. Long, an Alabama-based Army surgeon, gained a following in vaccine refuser circles despite the fact that many of her claims made in court were filled with errors and inaccuracies.

Alas, quackery isn’t limited to yahoos on the Internet. It’s infested our federal judiciary as well:

Meanwhile, the legal challenges that vaccine refusers have filed in federal courts have made an impact. In late March, the Navy was forced to suspend discharging sailors with pending exemption requests after a Texas judge ruled that a case involving vaccine-refusing Navy SEALs would apply to the entire service – just days after his earlier order to halt any Navy action against the SEALs was narrowed by the Supreme Court.

Last week, in response to an injunction issued by Judge Steven Merryday in federal court in Florida, the Marine Corps released a message saying it too was halting separations. The decision will impact about 1,150 Marines, according to a statement from the service.

Merryday was the same judge who in March forbade the Navy from reassigning a commander of a destroyer despite testimony that the man had flouted the service’s rules for COVID-19 mitigation while seeking a religious exemption from the vaccine. Merryday called the officer “triumphantly fit and slim and strong, who is robustly healthy, who is young.” He was later overruled by the Supreme Court.

Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who fought and prevailed over the military’s last major vaccine mandate for anthrax, had previously told Military.com that it’s no accident that many of the same judges have been appearing in vaccine cases.

“It’s clearly forum shopping. … I don’t think it’s surprising that stays were obtained in very conservative districts on religious issues,” he said.

It’s all rather depressing.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    In other news the Army’s Inspector General is following up on reports that the construction of firebase Charlie was so rushed that proper consideration was not given to the principles of Feng Shui.

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  2. Scott says:

    This pernicious use of religion to undermine the good order and discipline of our military is going to bite us in the ass. It can be used to exempt anyone from doing anything they don’t want to do. All a military member has to do is to claim “deeply held religious beliefs” and claim exemption. Why? Because any authority cannot challenge that idea.

    Quite frankly, being a member of the armed forces is a privilege, not a right and if your religious beliefs preclude your ability to serve, then you shouldn’t.

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  3. Tony W says:

    I have yet to see a religious text that requires people to spread deadly viruses around the world without mitigation.

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  4. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    You won’t be so glib when your Yin gets Yanged.

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  5. Rick DeMent says:

    I am skeptical of all claims of religious exemptions. Is there any limit? I am speaking about Christians in general, but I know of no scripture in any of the religious texts that I am familiar with (OT, NT, and book of Mormon) that addresses things like medical interventions, vaccines or even abortion. Even sillier is the idea that a corporation (Hobby Lobby) can have a corporate belief that exempts them from regulations about healthcare. The claims are never investigated in SCOTUS court cases unless it’s a non-Christian religion. In the Hobby Lobby case, this was never questioned at all. where in the bible does it say ….

    Low that the lord said unto those who closely hold a corporate charter in thy grace, will be held accountable for the sins that government regulation bestows on their employees, so saithe the lord. Book of BullDung 12:32

    To further bring this hypocrisy to light is the fact that non-Christian religions always more robustly evaluated in court cases (including the current court case of a Jewish sect clam their religion demands an abortion is mandates it to save the life of the mother).

    See this case to see what I mean:

    How far does “assert it, and it is so” go in religious exemptions? Why exactly can’t I assert a claim that my religion has a has a doctrine or creed that says paying taxes to any organization other then my church is a sin against god without that claim being interrogated?

    Religions exemptions are some of the most inconsistent and self-serving jurisprudence you will find and it almost always regards Christianity over all others when it come to any actions on the part of the court to understand if this is truly a sincere belief or just opportunism. I would reckon that over 99% of those calming religious beliefs have accepted other vaccinations without question. Especially in the military.

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  6. Slugger says:

    This is interesting to a Vietnam era guy. Back then, religious exemptions to military service were hard to come by. You had to prove membership in an organized religious community with a long standing anti military policy. I don’t think that a hasty conversion to Jainism was enough. If you were Catholic, saying that you were following Father Daniel Berrigan was not enough. Are there organized anti vax churches?

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    We have a mandatory vax policy at work. I know there were several people who claimed religious exemptions and we had a very rigorous set of questions similar to what Slugger talks about above. AFAIK, none made it through. One of the guys worked for me and I know for a fact that he is in no way religious, so it was bullsh*t from the get go. But he was reading from some internet-lawyer boilerplate mumbo jumbo and was outraged that we wouldn’t accept that.

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  8. Beth says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    It’s all part and parcel of setting up one set of rules that favors White Christians and allows them to do whatever they want, to whomever they want, whenever and a second set of restrictions that tells the rest of us to get bent.

    I’m a pagan with sincerely held belief that the Moon wants me to do psychedelics so that I can commune with her and the ancestors better. How well do you think that’s going to go over if I’m ever caught with any? I’m going to guess, wet fart in church.

    Meanwhile, the Christians are about to get a rounding exemption from discrimination laws and already have their personal abortion and women control preferences enacted.

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  9. Scott says:

    Tangential to the discussion begun by James, there is this article from Politico. Apologize in advance for the potential highjacking.

    Most Republicans Support Declaring the United States a Christian Nation

    Christian nationalism, a belief that the United States was founded as a white, Christian nation and that there is no separation between church and state, is gaining steam on the right.

    Appeals to Christian nationalism have a long tradition in American history, though they have usually operated on the fringes. But the increasingly mainstream appearance of this belief in GOP circles makes sense if you look at new public opinion surveys. Our new University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll suggests that declaring the United States a Christian nation is a message that could be broadly embraced by Republicans in the midterms and 2024 presidential race.

    I take exception to this:

    though they have usually operated on the fringes.

    Until the 1930s, this idea was not on the fringes as evidenced by the popularity and power of groups like the KKK.

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  10. inhumans99 says:

    Okay, the thing that I thought of is not exactly on subject when I saw this post is the oft quoted classic bit of dialogue between Christopher Walken’s character as a Sergeant in Biloxi Blues and Carney, where he tries to claim a religious exemption that will allow him to pass on eating a meal that scares him (lol), and Walken is having none of it noting that he has a religious calendar in his room and is aware of any legit Religious Holidays that would allow for Carney to pass on eating his meal or skip doing his duties for the day.

    Such a great scene, and I may have even quoted or mentioned this scene in the past on this great blog, but yeah….when the subject of someone claiming a religious exemption pops up on the web the Biloxi Blues scene pops into my head.

    I guess the thing that always confused folks who are presently in the military, ex-service members (Veterans), and most of the general public themselves who are not in the military is that it is well known that the military makes you get poked for vaccinations against a vast number of potential illnesses one could come down with and no longer be fit for duty, and Covid was simply added to the list.

    If a significant percentage of folks who were kicked from active service were soldiers and officers who also were exempt against getting vaccinated for other diseases, and Covid just happened to be added to the list of vaccinations they did not want to get and still stay in uniform, I say let them back in and reinstate their benefits.

    However, if the military pulls out the vaccinations record of a lot of these folks and sees that they received all the required shots on a regular basis throughout their time in the military but decided that because a Qanon yahoo on the web told them they would be microchipped by Bill Gates and George Soros is the reason they passed on the Covid vaccine (actually the soldier stepped up to use religion as a shield against getting the shot, but the reality is that they did not want to get chipped by Gates and Soros), well that is life. You were told you had to get this shot along with all the others you received and decided to take a stand and refuse the order to get vaccinated, well then it sucks to be you because you were asking to be kicked from the military with at best the means to receive limited benefits for having served.

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  11. CSK says:

    Wrong thread.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    Rushed? How long does it take for:
    Are you a member of an organized religion?
    Yes.
    Do they object to COVID Vax? And note I have a list here of the official stance of every significant organized religion.
    Well, no.
    Then why do you object?
    Fetal stem cells.
    Did you object to any of the other vaccinations we gave you that were tested using stem cells in exactly the same way?
    Umh, no.
    Next!

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  13. Mikey says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    I would reckon that over 99% of those calming religious beliefs have accepted other vaccinations without question. Especially in the military.

    Indeed. Everyone who’s served in the military can recall the vaccination gauntlet we all had to deal with in basic training. Shirt unbuttoned and down around the waist, T-shirt sleeves pulled up, and if you’re of a certain age (as I am) you got multiple zaps in each arm from the jet injector, which hurt like a mofo and if you flinched you ended up with blood running down your arm.

    And that’s just basic training. If you’re getting deployed, there are even more shots to get. So every military member for the last 20 years has received many vaccinations.

    These requests for “religious exemption” to the COVID vaccine are simply opportunistic bullshit claims for people who have quaffed the anti-vax koolaid. They were rightly denied.

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  14. steve says:

    Agree that this is nonsense. Someone in the IG office is supporting the Christian nationalist effort and not the military. Yes, it is very likely many of those exemption requests were identical or nearly identical. That is certainly what I saw when I had to review them. In my case the lawyers suggested that I actually not treat them individually. Several of the people making the requests actually make some attempts to behave like Christians. The last one was anything but Christianlike in their behavior. I had to treat that person the same since what they wrote was the same.

    Steve

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  15. DK says:

    I’ve been Christian all my life, and I’m actually on yet another 3-4 year slog through the Old & New Testaments.

    Among the wisdom, contradictions, and shocking stories, there’s a ton of nonsense in this book, sure, but — Praises Be — nothing in it that precludes anyone from getting any vaccine. So. Yeah, nice try but no.

    I can’t speak to what the other faiths say, but if your sincerely held religious beliefs of any kind conflict with your job’s required oath and duties, you need a new job. Maybe your church is hiring recruiters, since so many are hemorrhaging members?

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  16. DK says:

    @Beth:

    It’s all part and parcel of setting up one set of rules that favors White Christians and allows them to do whatever they want, to whomever they want, whenever and a second set of restrictions that tells the rest of us to get bent.

    The white evangelical church has been a thin front for Christian-Sharia white supremacy for a while now.

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  17. KM says:

    BS, it went as fast as it did because people could obviously see someone taking advantage of something they’re not entitled to. It’s like an abled-bodied person driving a car with handicapped plates and parking in the handicap spot. The CAR’s entitled to be there, not you – using the vehicle of faith to take advantage is fraud.

    Religious exemptions are getting out of hand precisely because they’ve gone from “religious” to “personal belief”. The two are NOT the same and frankly, the Constitution says nothing about belief. It says religions specifically because the Founders were aware that letting every single whim that runs through your head be justification for flouting the law is madness. Organized region (and they had a pretty loosey-goosey concept of “organized”) was the standard because it implied there were enough people to make an exemption for and a good enough reason for people to flock to it.

    There’s no damn reason someone can’t start a church that’s anti-vax, anti-conception, anti-whatever they want at the time to resist. It’s just that most folks would balk at “changing their faith” to the sect that actually represents them then twisting whatever faith their claim to suit their needs. If you’re culturally Evangelical but don’t follow the tenants, you’re not a religious Evangelical and thus shouldn’t get to use their get out of jail free card. MAGA isn’t a faith, nor is anti-vaxxer so stop abusing religious exemptions to get out of politically or culturally motivated beliefs.

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  18. JKB says:

    How much of this is damage control? How many took the vaccine but are sympathetic to those seeking exemption? Arbitrariness of treatment can destroy unit cohesion.

    But more critically, it seems many in the normal pool of recruits are learning from this and not putting themselves under the authority of the military as shown by the recruitment woes. Sure the services can command the bodies and legs of the members, but they risk losing the soul of the army if those members feel cause of grievance.

    But the real difficulty was, and will be again, to obtain an adequate number of good soldiers.
    […]
    Of course, the soldier must be trained to obedience, and should be “content with his wages;” but whoever has commanded an army in the field knows the difference between a willing, contented mass of men, and one that feels a cause of grievance. There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs.

    Memoir of General William T. Sherman, Vol II, pg 387

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  19. Scott says:

    @Mikey:

    if you’re of a certain age (as I am) you got multiple zaps in each arm from the jet injector, which hurt like a mofo and if you flinched you ended up with blood running down your arm.

    I still have a scar in my arm from the jet injector. And I always wondered how effective it was when half the vaccine dribbled down my arm.

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  20. gVOR08 says:

    The linked article says the Army got 8,514 requests for religious exemption from the Army and reserve. It’s unclear that the National Guard was included, but there’s no obvious reason they wouldn’t be. With Reserve and NG the Army has just about 1,ooo,ooo uniformed personnel. So 0.8% applied. I doubt this is a major factor in unit cohesion. You talk of “arbitrariness of treatment”. Arbitrary would be letting these people off just because they said so after everyone else complied.

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  21. p.anderson@fuse.net says:

    @Scott: If you went to University of Illinois when I did you got the same injector guns. And I don’t recall anyone asking if I objected.

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  22. Stormy Dragon says:

    @MarkedMan:

    We have a mandatory vax policy at work. I know there were several people who claimed religious exemptions and we had a very rigorous set of questions similar to what Slugger talks about above. AFAIK, none made it through.

    On the other hand, my company granted religious exemptions to anyone who requested one and only went through the motions of reviewing the requests.

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  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Slugger:

    Are there organized anti vax churches?

    Except for the sense of multi-campus megachurch congregations, I haven’t seen any organized churches take anti-vax stances. Lots of independent evangelical congregations, though. Anti-vax may well be a requirement for “independent” status these days.

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  24. Andy says:

    I agree with you on the merits and share your skepticism at religious exemptions to vaccination.

    But once an exemption process and policy were created, the government should not gun-deck the process.

    The solution is to eliminate religious exemptions generally, not engage in Kabuki theater where the DoD pretends exemptions exist while ensuring that none are granted.

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  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Beth: “It’s all part and parcel of setting up one set of rules that favors White Christians and allows them to do whatever they want, to whomever they want, whenever and a second set of restrictions that tells the rest of us to get bent.”

    Well, yes. But I thought everyone knew this already. The concept goes back to carefully cherry picked quotes from John Adams:

    “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.””

    “We Recognize No Sovereign but God, and no King but Jesus!”

    “The Declaration of Independence laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity.”

    https://www.azquotes.com/author/90-John_Adams/tag/christianity

    The history of “Christian-nation-ness” is pretty long standing here. Maybe even longer than non-establishmentarianism.

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  26. Andy says:

    @Beth:

    It’s all part and parcel of setting up one set of rules that favors White Christians and allows them to do whatever they want, to whomever they want, whenever and a second set of restrictions that tells the rest of us to get bent.

    I’m a pagan with sincerely held belief that the Moon wants me to do psychedelics so that I can commune with her and the ancestors better. How well do you think that’s going to go over if I’m ever caught with any? I’m going to guess, wet fart in church.

    That’s not actually true.

    You don’t hear about it much (because it’s not red meat to the national press), but over the past few years, the military has granted many religious exemptions to military rules and policy for non-Christians, including pagans. The most well-known is an Army policy to allow soldiers to wear beards, turbans, hijabs, and other accouterments for religious reasons. One guy who is a “Norse Pagan” was granted an exception to have a beard, for example.

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  27. Mikey says:

    @Andy: You’re right, there are religious exemptions the military will grant, but those will need to show actual doctrinal support. Wear of beards and turbans is a fundamental tenet of the Sikh faith, and today there are servicemembers who are permitted those.

    There may be doctrine in some religions barring vaccination in general, but there probably isn’t one that allows all vaccines except the COVID vaccine.

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  28. Scott says:

    @Andy: @Mikey:

    This is why I tend to be a hardliner on this issue. Turbans, yarmulkas, beards all seem to be on the surface harmless exceptions. However, does it stop there? Or does it allow the pharmacy tech to refuse to fill birth control pills or cancer medicines that may double as abortifacients or Plan B. It is a slippery slope we are going down.

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  29. Gustopher says:

    @Tony W:

    I have yet to see a religious text that requires people to spread deadly viruses around the world without mitigation.

    Dude, I know I’m blowing all my deadlines, but I’m working on it.

    United Church of the Blessed Plague, where we offer the possibility of a miraculous recovery, should the Gods Above And Below choose to perform said miracle on your behalf.

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  30. gVOR08 says:

    @Andy:

    But once an exemption process and policy were created, the government should not gun-deck the process.

    The linked article notes that the Army has received 8,514 requests for exemption, processed 1,602, and approved 24. First, that hardly sounds like a “rushed” process. It does sound like a valid process, with a lot of bogus requests. As one would expect given how Trump and the GOPs politicized this and FOX propagandized it.

    On “doing my research”, two minutes on Google, I see the Dutch Reformed Church and Christian Scientists don’t object to vaccines but have some vague allowance for individuals to object, along with a few small faith healing groups. I would assume they account for most of the approved exemptions.

    I see that Florida has a religious exemption form for business vax requirements that requires a claimant only to declare he has a sincerely held religious, moral, or ethical belief without further explanation. This is followed by a bolded note that the employer may not inquire into the veracity of said claim. The Army has some historical experience with contagious diseases so I can understand why they might want a higher standard than DeUseless.

    The Republican Party is deeply infected with Bizarro World fake reality. We’re seeing that it now also infects the judiciary. Apparently the Army IG is not immune.

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  31. al Ameda says:

    This is all so very tiresome. We’re getting to a point where I think we need to ask about half the country if they would rather pledge allegiance to The Bible than to The Constitution.

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  32. Mikey says:

    @al Ameda: Unfortunately, we don’t have to ask.

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  33. gVOR08 says:

    @al Ameda: @Mikey: And it’s not like they understand what either says.

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  34. Rick DeMent says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    The history of “Christian-nation-ness” is pretty long standing here. Maybe even longer than non-establishmentarianism.

    and then they did no such thing when they Wrote the constitution other then to codify that you have freedom of religion. Even at that no one ever said anything about using that amendment to nullifying any law (other then making a “reasonable” accommodation). But you go ahead, make the case that Christianity (All denominations or just the bigger ones?) is held in special regard under the law.

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