Choose extends momentary ban on punishment for officers refusing COVID vaccine

Editor’s word: This story was first printed within the Tampa Bay Instances.

TAMPA — A Navy commander and a Marine lieutenant colonel who’ve resisted a military-wide vaccine mandate took the witness stand Thursday in a Tampa federal courtroom, describing their spiritual causes for refusing to be inoculated in opposition to COVID-19.

The pair testified anonymously, with a choose’s consent, to guard their identities. Each described themselves as training Christians who believed that receiving vaccines would introduce impurities into their our bodies. Every additionally expressed concern about fetal cell strains, that are used within the analysis and improvement of varied vaccines and plenty of frequent medicines.

The navy denied every of them a non secular exemption to the vaccine requirement. Each may face discharge in the event that they don’t comply.

“I can’t knowingly put one thing in my physique that I consider is a toxin,” mentioned the Navy commander, who leads some 320 sailors aboard a guided-missile destroyer primarily based in northern Virginia.

“For me, it could be a sin,” mentioned the lieutenant colonel, who serves as a variety and inclusion officer with the Marine Forces Particular Operations Command. “As a result of it could defile my physique. As a result of my physique is a temple of Jesus Christ.”

The officers at the moment are on the heart of a lawsuit introduced by the Liberty Counsel, a non secular group that has fought in opposition to the navy’s mandate. They obtained a small victory final week when U.S. District Choose Steven Merryday issued a short lived order barring the navy from disciplining the pair.

On the conclusion of the daylong listening to, Choose Merryday prolonged the momentary order till Friday, Feb. 18.

Amy Powell, an legal professional for the Division of Justice, mentioned the federal government’s place is that service members should take the vaccine or face self-discipline. She famous that the majority service members had been vaccinated. Some have obtained exemptions for medical causes.

“We might reasonably folks not be within the navy than place different service members in danger,” she mentioned.

The Navy officer, an 18-year veteran, testified for greater than an hour. Sitting straight-backed in formal apparel, he spoke softly, his voice at occasions cracking with emotion.

“I’m a training Christian,” he mentioned. “I consider my physique is a temple.”

He expressed a perception in holding his physique freed from impurities, and mentioned that extends to issues he eats, listens to or watches. He cited parts of the Bible, together with the books of Daniel and Romans, to claim a dedication to safeguarding his physique.

He mentioned he avoids drugs. He obtained vaccines as a toddler, however has grown to treat them with skepticism.

The lieutenant colonel voiced related beliefs. She holds a biology diploma, she mentioned. When vaccines began to develop into broadly accessible, she did her personal analysis and concluded they weren’t consistent with her beliefs.

She was held again from a deliberate deployment to Bahrain after refusing to get one. She examined constructive for COVID-19 in January and frolicked recovering, however nonetheless got here into the workplace when a boss requested for her assist with a mission.

She expressed explicit concern about the usage of fetal cell strains to develop some vaccines. Whereas the vaccines don’t comprise aborted fetal cells, a few of their testing and analysis concerned the usage of fetal cell strains, which had been derived from cells which are a long time previous. She was requested if she would get a vaccine that didn’t use fetal cell strains if one was accessible.

“No,” she mentioned, noting that she additionally didn’t belief vaccines that use messenger RNA.

“I don’t consider this messenger RNA is clear,” she mentioned. “That’s one thing that the spirit rose up in me and mentioned ‘that is unclean.’”

Amid a sequence of questions directed to the Navy commander, Choose Merryday famous it’s not his duty to find out the validity of an individual’s spiritual beliefs.

The Navy commander described at size how his ship has continued to function because the pandemic took maintain. His destroyer has continued abroad deployments amid mask-wearing and different efforts. When personnel aboard the ship examined constructive for the virus, they’d be escorted off and remoted till wholesome once more. The ship personnel additionally did contact tracing and quarantines for many who’d been uncovered.

Over almost two years, the commander mentioned, about 170 to 180 of his ship’s personnel have come down with COVID-19 sooner or later. None have develop into severely unwell, he mentioned. And the pandemic has not impeded their potential to hold out their missions, although at one level they needed to borrow personnel from different ships.

Because the commander, he’s in control of reviewing all orders given to the sailors beneath his authority. These embody orders concerning the vaccines. Out of the personnel aboard his ship, 17 claimed a non secular exemption to receiving the COVID-19 vaccines. A chaplain investigated every and decided 16 had been legit.

He talked about one man who merely refused to adjust to the mandate. It was the commander’s obligation to hold out the executive separation course of.

“He was one in every of my greatest sailors,” he mentioned, his voice trembling.

He submitted his personal spiritual exemption request in September, however it was denied. The 16 sailors on his ship who additionally claimed spiritual exemptions had been additionally denied lodging. His attraction of the choice was additionally denied in late January.

Someday in early November, the commander mentioned he began to lose his voice. He consulted a nurse, who mentioned that wasn’t a standard symptom of COVID-19. He went about his duties however was later advised by a superior officer to take a coronavirus take a look at to make certain. It got here out constructive. He spent two weeks out of service.

He described experiencing hostility from his superior officers, who warned him he wanted to obtain the vaccine inside 5 days. If he didn’t, he might be discharged from the Navy.

Powell, the federal government legal professional, alluded to issues of the commander’s superior officers that he wasn’t taking severe measures to stop the unfold of the virus. She mentioned they’ve misplaced belief in his judgment.

On cross-examination, he acknowledged a duty to set instance for his sailors. He additionally acknowledged he’s not a physician and that if too many individuals fell unwell, a ship might be taken out of service, which impression the mission.