Georgia Air Force officer sues to block Pentagon’s vaccine mandate

Credit: Jamal D. Sutter (GS-11)

Credit: Jamal D. Sutter (GS-11)

Other U.S. service members mounting similar legal challenges in Florida and Texas

A U.S. Air Force officer assigned to Robins Air Force Base south of Macon is suing in federal court to block the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates, citing her sincerely held Christian beliefs.

The officer, who is not identified by name or rank in the lawsuit, says the military’s vaccine requirement violates her First Amendment right to freely exercise her religion. Filed this month, the 31-page suit names Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III and Air Force Surgeon General Robert Miller as defendants.

U.S. service members are mounting similar federal legal challenges in Florida and Texas. On Jan. 3, the federal judge in the Texas case granted a preliminary injunction blocking the Pentagon from punishing 35 Navy personnel who have cited their Christian beliefs in refusing to get vaccinated. Also this month, a federal judge in Colorado dismissed a similar complaint.

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the federal government from enforcing its vaccinate-or-test mandate for large employers. But it allowed a separate mandate for health care workers in federally funded facilities.

As of Wednesday, 5,760 service members, dependents, military contractors and Defense Department civilian employees have been hospitalized for COVID-19 and 649 have died from the disease, Pentagon figures show. Among them was a contractor affiliated with Robins who died in April 2020 from suspected medical complications related to COVID-19. Vaccinated and boosted against the disease, Austin confirmed this month he tested positive for COVID-19 and was quarantining at home.

The Thomas More Society, a conservative Chicago-based law firm, is representing the officer in the Georgia case. It filed lawsuits through its Amistad Project, alleging problems with the 2020 election in Georgia and other battleground states,

Through her attorney, the officer declined an interview request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has asked the court for permission to sue anonymously, alleging media outlets and President Joe Biden have “demonized” service members who have declined to be vaccinated. She also told the court she is concerned about her safety. She added she does not oppose all vaccines, some of which are required by the military.

The vaccines, she says in her lawsuit, were “derived from or tested on (as part of their development) aborted fetal tissue.” She added that, as a Christian, she believes “abortion is a grave evil and contrary to her faith.”

The Pentagon and Air Force declined to comment on the lawsuit. The Air Force says on its website that Pfizer and Moderna did not use fetal cells to manufacture their vaccines, though they were used in early research for them. This is not a new practice. Historic fetal cell lines were used in the research, production and manufacturing of many over-the-counter medications, according to the Air Force, including Tylenol, Pepto Bismol and Sudafed.

In 2020, the Vatican concluded that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses” in their research and production process when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines aren’t available.

Quoting the Bible, the Air Force officer in Georgia added that her “body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” and said “injection with a novel substance of unknown long-term effects would violate this belief.”

Additionally, she discloses in her complaint she contracted COVID-19 in December 2020, fully recovered from it and “remains naturally immune to it.” She said she is willing to take regular COVID-19 tests while at the base, wear a mask, maintain social distancing and work remotely.

Approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the vaccines are safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Getting vaccinated is a “safer and more dependable way to build immunity to COVID-19 than getting sick with COVID-19,” the CDC says, and can also help protect others, particularly people at increased risk for severe illness from the disease.

The CDC cited a 2021 study from Kentucky that concluded people who have already had COVID-19 and who do not get vaccinated after their recovery are more than twice as likely to get the disease again compared to those who get fully vaccinated after recovering.

“The best protection possible is for people who have previously had COVID is to get immunized,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, who teaches medicine, global health and epidemiology at Emory University. “By decreasing the chance that you are going to get infected, you are protecting others.”

Both a military and federal civilian employee, the officer in Georgia has served in the Air Force for more than 25 years. Her administrative position in the Air Force Reserves, according to her complaint, does not require her to deploy.

She appealed the Air Force’s rejection of her request for a religious exemption. And the Air Force surgeon general rejected that appeal, saying her job requires intermittent-to-frequent contact with others and that not getting vaccinated “would have a real adverse impact on military readiness and public health and safety.”

She is pursuing a separate civilian request for a religious exemption. And while that request is pending, according to her lawsuit, she can continue to work on the base, so long as she takes regular COVID-19 tests, wears a mask and maintains social distancing.