SCOTUS Rules Against Air Force Vaccine Refusnik

A wackadoodle colonel is on his way out.

NYT (“Supreme Court Rules Against Air Force Officer Who Refused Vaccine“):

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the Pentagon may take disciplinary action against a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve who refused to be vaccinated against the coronavirus on religious grounds.

The court’s brief, unsigned order gave no reasons, which is common when the justices act on emergency applications. The court’s three most conservative members — Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch — noted dissents but did not explain their thinking.

The court’s order, an interim measure that denied relief while appeals proceed, followed a similar ruling last month that said the Navy could consider the vaccination status of 35 of its service members in decisions about where they should be assigned or deployed. The same three justices dissented.

Having already indicated that it’s not going to grant emergency stays in these cases, I’m honestly not sure why the Court bothered to respond at all.

But there’s more to the case than a simple refusal to get vaccinated. It turns out that we’ve uncovered a nutcase.

In the new case, Lt. Col. Jonathan Dunn, who has been removed from his command after serving for nearly two decades as a pilot, trainer and commander, said he sought only “protection against further punishment, including a discharge.”

Colonel Dunn, who has received many other vaccinations without objection, said he decided that the coronavirus vaccine violated his faith after seeing President Biden speak about it, leading him to conclude that “the vaccine ceased to be merely a medical intervention and took on a symbolic and even sacramental quality.”

This was, he said, “akin to the ancient Roman laws requiring that sacrifices be made to Caesar.”

And, naturally, we have this old standby:

He added that he had been infected by the virus and developed antibodies as a result.

This was up against an argument that courts have found convincing since the colonial period:

Elizabeth B. Prelogar, the U.S. solicitor general, told the justices that the Air Force had determined, in its military judgment, “that vaccination of service members is an essential component of military readiness and is critical to protecting the health and safety of service members.”

She added that Colonel Dunn had exhibited poor judgment that justified his removal from command for reasons independent of his refusal to be vaccinated.

Oh, come on now. Surely not?

On being ordered to choose among being vaccinated, submitting his resignation or refusing the vaccine in writing, Colonel Dunn instead sent a one-word memorandum to a two-star general several steps above him in the chain of command: “NUTS!”

The memo echoed Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s famous response to a German surrender demand in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Colonel Dunn’s lawyers told the justices that he had used the term “to demonstrate resolve, not disrespect.”

His direct commander disagreed, saying the message was a “highly disrespectful affront to the chain of command” that showed “a shocking lack of military decorum.” Ms. Prelogar noted that the American officer who delivered General McAuliffe’s message had added an explanation. “If you don’t understand what ‘Nuts’ means, in plain English, it is the same as ‘Go to hell,'” the officer said.

It is, to say the least, highly unorthodox.

Ms. Prelogar added that Colonel Dunn’s unit had to be prepared to deploy anywhere in the world on short notice, including to countries that require proof of vaccination for entry.

She noted that the military had long required vaccinations, starting in 1777, when George Washington ordered the inoculation of the Continental Army against smallpox. As of early 2021, she wrote, nine vaccines were required for all service members.

In August, the Defense Department said it would add the coronavirus vaccine to the list. According to court papers, 98 percent of Air Force members have been vaccinated.

The Supreme Court has historically been wary of second-guessing military judgments.

I’d be shocked if that changes when these cases make their way up through the regular order. As they almost certainly will. In mid-February, a Trump-appointed judge in Georgia ruled that the Air Force could not discharge a female officer who claimed the vaccine requirement violated her Christian beliefs.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Military Affairs, Supreme Court, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kathy says:

    Oh, so that’s why I was required at the vaccination site to sacrifice a squirrel, burn it’s meat and bones, and say a prayer to the Almighty Joe while inhaling incense and making votive offerings!

    No. Wait. No, that never happened.

    It must be I’m not delusional.

  2. Beth says:

    The scary part of this is that there are very clearly at least 3 votes for the idea that Christians can do whatever they want.

  3. Neil Hudelson says:


    No. Wait. No, that never happened.

    Well you’re in Mexico, I presume a haven of pagans and atheists. Not like here in God’s Country ™.

  4. Kathy says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Nah. Pagans would sacrifice Republicans to the Almighty Joe.

  5. CSK says:

    Well, you can’t persuade people who are convinced that there’s aborted fetal tissue in the vaccines that there isn’t (even the Vatican says the vaxes are fine) if they’re absolutely sure that there is.

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The court’s three most conservative members — Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch — noted dissents but did not explain their thinking.

    The far bigger angle – three of our SCOTUS Justices are apparently of the opinion that the C-in-C is no longer the C-in-C.

  7. Tony W says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: They absolutely still think the Commander in Chief is still the CiC – as long as the POTUS is Republican.

    You cannot expect intellectual consistency from those three ironic “originalists”. They will take whatever side is expeditious for Republicans with regard to the current issue at hand and don’t care a thing about precedent – past or present.

  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: Yeah. I just don’t believe that they really think the dead baby extract thing is true; they’re just clinging to whatever lame-ass excuse they can find to be oppositionist. “We ought to obey God rather than men” won’t fly for this issue, so there you are.

    In the meantime:

    Donald TrumpFG spent the Easter weekend enjoying two of his favorite activities, sources say: golf and greeting adoring guests at his Mar-a-Lago resort. On Saturday and Sunday morning, the former president played rounds of golf with members at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, a source tells PEOPLE.

    “He is no longer president,” says one insider, “so he doesn’t have to go to church.”

    A comment on the thread at the article opined “back off jesus, we have a new massiah in our midsts [sic].” I think it captures the mindset of the cohort perfectly. link

  9. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    That’s the thing about religion–you can pervert it to justify anything that’s convenient for you.

    As for Trump, I wasn’t aware that he attended services while he was president.

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    As for Trump, I wasn’t aware that he attended services while he was president.

    Yeah, that was news to me, too. But I searched “news articles about President Trump attending church” and found 4 hits.

    The most interesting one had a money quote of “President Donald Trump may be golfing most Sundays, but his presence in America’s churches will be felt for a long, long time. While his glowing face may not appear among the worshippers, he is most assuredly there.”

    Additionally, provides a pretty exhaustive (I assume) listing of the times that FG attended church. He seems to have done it occasionally, at least. Mostly for opportunities to be photographed attending church, for some reason. [eyeroll]

  11. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I thought the piece was going to be some nauseating encomium for Trump, but it turned out to be highly critical.

    The sad irony is that Trump used to make fun of religious leaders after they left his office,