More than 130 U.S. Coast Guard members filed a class action lawsuit alleging the religious exemptions they filed in response to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for military service members were unlawfully denied.
The lawsuit, filed July 25 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas — Galveston Division, also challenges the constitutionality of the mandate.
The number of plaintiffs exceeds 130 and will likely end up surpassing 200, according to Dale Saran, one of the attorneys representing the service members.
The suit names four defendants: Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS); Linda L. Fagan, commandant of the Coast Guard; Lloyd Austin, secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Plaintiffs are either active-duty or reserve members of the Coast Guard, and all “have sincerely held religious beliefs that prohibit them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.”
According to the complaint, under the August 24, 2021, DOD vaccine mandate, the military theoretically offers “medical, administrative, and Religious Accommodation Requests (RARs) to the mandate,” while the Coast Guard’s vaccine mandate, issued two days later, “incorporates the provisions of the DOD mandate.”
The suit alleges:
“In practice, only servicemembers with medical or administrative reasons for an exemption from the mandate are accommodated, and even those sparingly, while RARs are universally denied unless the requester is eligible for administrative separation – i.e. imminently leaving the Service.”
This “conclusively demonstrates that the Armed Services have systematically and willfully violated service members’ free exercise rights under RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] and the First Amendment,” the lawsuit states.
The DOD mandate stipulates that service members who do not receive the COVID-19 vaccine will be involuntarily separated. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are currently at risk of involuntary separation, but also are experiencing discrimination because of their vaccination status.