When Tamika Hamilton, an active reserve member of the military, was ordered to get the COVID-19 shot, she immediately applied for a religious exemption.
“I went through the whole process, and I was denied,” she said. “Then, it came down to my career or get the vaccine.”
Hamilton took the vaccine but believes it should be a choice — not a mandate.
“For those who are apprehensive about getting the vaccine, I think they should be allowed to wait,” she said.
Tamika Hamilton, who is campaigning for a seat in California’s 6th Congressional District, is currently assisting military members under her command with the religious exemption process.
“There’s an exemption process you have to go through, and I am helping them with the process,” Hamilton said in an interview. “It’s important for me to show how to go through the process of religious exemption, especially if you want to stay in.”
Hamilton is among the 97% of U.S. military members who have reportedly received the COVID-19 vaccine. However, some 35,000, or 3%, remain unvaccinated.
“This is a situation that’s gotten a lot of us divided in the military and has brought down morale considerably,” Hamilton told The Dallas Express.
Some unvaccinated Navy members may find relief in a ruling issued by a federal judge in Fort Worth last month.
“They are facing a lot of discrimination,” said attorney Mat Staver, who filed a lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of thirty-five Navy personnel in the Northern District of Texas federal court. “What’s happening in all the branches of the military is abusive. They are doing things such as assigning unvaccinated people to broom closet duty, which basically means that they are assigned to go sit in an empty room all day long and do nothing. We have people who are being required to report to work, move a few boxes, and then drive all the way home.”
Staver, the founder and chair of Liberty Counsel law firm, won a lawsuit last year on behalf of Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, in which the state of California agreed to a $1.35 million settlement to end COVID-19 church prohibition litigation.
“What we’ve been arguing — and the judges agree, too — is that the military is violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Staver told The Dallas Express. “The military has been operating as though it is above the law, and the courts are saying, ‘No, the law applies to you, and you have to abide by federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the First Amendment.'”
U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Texas Judge Reed O’Connor granted a preliminary injunction that exempts Navy personnel who have requested religious accommodations from the COVID shot mandate.
“Plaintiffs have suffered the serious injury of infringement of their religious liberty rights under RFRA and the First Amendment,” wrote O’Connor in his March 28 order. “Each has submitted a religious accommodation request, and each has had his request denied, delayed, or dismissed on appeal. Exactly zero requests have been granted. And while Defendants encourage this Court to disregard the data, it is hard to imagine a more consistent display of discrimination.”
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) outlaws any U.S. agency from overriding an individual’s ability to practice their religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.
However, Dr. Alan Thomalla, who has consulted with military clients, is suspicious of the COVID vaccine being singled out in litigation.
“I’ve received information from members of the military about how many vaccines they are required to take, and I am surprised by the number,” he said. “It seems like the Navy takes more than the other service branches. So, to carve out the COVID vaccine from that list of about twenty vaccines seems oddly suspect. It feels like it might be politically motivated. I don’t know of any other explanation as to why the COVID vaccine would be carved out from all of the other vaccines.”
Judge O’Connor also granted the plaintiffs’ request to certify the federal claim as a class-action lawsuit.
“We don’t have a draft or compulsory service in the military, so if someone feels very strongly about the vaccine, they wouldn’t have to serve in the military at all,” Dr. Thomalla told The Dallas Express. “There are exemption procedures in the United States military, and if someone came to an impasse and decided they cannot in good faith take the vaccine, then they perhaps should find another line of work and not try to have a career in the military.”
As a result of Judge O’Connor’s decision, the Navy cannot discipline or discharge any of the personnel who have requested religious accommodations from vaccines under the RFRA.
“This order vindicates religious free exercise protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment, which the Department of Defense has violated with this unlawful COVID shot mandate,” Staver said. “This is a great victory for religious freedom, especially for these Navy service members who love God and love America. We commend this Texas court for recognizing the unconstitutional way the military is treating these honorable service members.”
Department of Justice attorney Zachary Avallone, who represents the federal government, declined to comment.
“Congress needs to conduct a hearing so that this becomes public,” Staver said in an interview. “They need to call some of these high-ranking military officials to testify before Congress to justify what they’re doing. I think people would find it an outrage if they knew what’s happening.”
The federal government has since appealed the preliminary injunction; however, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans declined the request to set aside the preliminary injunction.
“You don’t take some of your highest-level individuals and evict them at a time when we’re facing potential war and threats from China, Iran, and the Russia-Ukraine situation — especially over the refusal to take a COVID shot for religious reasons. And yet that’s what the military is wanting to do,” Staver added.