The Air Force has not approved any requests from active-duty airmen and Space Force guardians who requested exemption from mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations on religious grounds, according to new statistics released by the service on Wednesday. The service is currently reviewing 4,933 religious exemption requests.

The news comes a day after the mandatory deadline passed for active-duty airmen and guardians to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The stats show that 95.9% of the active-duty force has been fully vaccinated, while an additional 1% has been partially vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccine became mandatory for all service members on Aug. 24, and top Air and Space Forces officials declared the vaccination efforts a success.

“I am incredibly proud of our airmen for coming together and getting vaccinated,” said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass. “This is about readiness, and ensuring our Air Force can continue to defend the homeland.”

However, there are still 8,486 airmen and guardians who are unvaccinated, meaning they have refused the vaccine and do not have an approved exemption, according to the data released Wednesday. Airmen and guardians could apply for an exemption before the deadline on specific grounds, such as: medical, determined by the service member’s medical provider; administrative, such as a separation or retirement date approved by a commander before Nov. 1; and for religious reasons, which are determined by the Department of the Air Force’s Surgeon General with input from the chaplain and staff judge advocate.

While the Air Force has approved 1,634 medical exemptions and 232 administrative exemptions, zero religious accommodations have been approved. A military legal expert who previously spoke to Task & Purpose offered an explanation for why religious exemptions are so difficult to get approved. Part of it has to do with the fact that service members receive many mandatory vaccinations before they enter basic training or go on deployment, and so they would have to justify why this vaccination should be exempted on religious grounds when the others were not.

“Did you also not take the smallpox vaccine?” Butch Bracknell, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served as a legal advisor for the 1st Marine Division, told Task & Purpose in August. “Did you also not take the Hep B? Show when you’ve been opposed to this in the past and how did this all of a sudden become a part of your closely held religious belief. Is it limited to this vaccine? Because if it’s limited to this vaccine, that’s a bad argument, right?” 

An airman fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania, Feb. 4, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joshua J. Seybert)

This isn’t the first time the military has struggled with a new mandatory vaccine. Attorney Mark Zaid represented several airmen, sailors, and Marines who were court-martialed for refusing to be vaccinated for anthrax during the military’s mandatory anthrax vaccination program in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Defense Department accused them of failing to obey a lawful order under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Troops who refuse mandatory COVID-19 vaccines will likely also face court-martial for the same offense, said Zaid, who represented Task & Purpose in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to force the Navy to release emails to and from the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s captain during last year’s COVID-19 deadly outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier.

“All avenues of punishment will be available to the different services, to include imprisonment and the ending of their military careers,” Zaid said in August. “Unlike with the anthrax vaccine, we’re in the midst of a pandemic so I envision DoD will act swiftly and harshly with legal action against refusers.”

Recently however, top military officials have called for commanders to show compassion when sorting out what to do with service members who refuse to be vaccinated.

“I think the secretary [of defense] has been very clear with the leaders of the military departments that he wants them to execute the mandate with a sense of compassion and understanding,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Monday. “I know he made this clear to them that he knows as a former commander himself, that leaders have a range of tools available to them to help troops make the right decisions for themselves, for the units, for the families, short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice, therefore, short of punitive measures.”

The mandate puts commanders who do not wish to take the vaccine for religious reasons in a particularly difficult position. An Air Force colonel who was relieved of command last month at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, claims she was fired after she did not order her subordinates to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Col. Katheryn Ellis, the former commander of the 14th Medical Group, told Task & Purpose that on Oct. 12 she was told by the commander of the 14th Flying Training Wing, Col. Seth Graham, to issue an order for two of her civilian employees to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.

However, Ellis believed Graham’s order conflicted with her own religious beliefs, as well as a request for a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate which she filed on Sept. 17. Ellis did not feel comfortable sharing the specifics of her beliefs “other than they are sincerely held,” she said, but this was the first time a vaccine violated those beliefs. 

“To clarify, my religious beliefs prevent me from taking the vaccine, actively promoting the vaccine, and from administering the vaccine to others myself (I’m a nurse),” Ellis said in a text message. “These objections were included in my religious accommodation request.”

U.S. Air Force Col. Katheryn Ellis, 14th Medical Group commander, receives her first salute as commander, July 6, 2021, on Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. The 14th Medical Group enhances the flying mission through medical responses to flying emergencies, delivery of aerospace and operational physiology training, and optimization of human performance. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica Haynie)

Other airmen have also voiced concern about the vaccine mandate. In September, a senior airman in the Air Force posted a viral video asking viewers to help find jobs for service members leaving the military because they refuse to take the vaccine.

“Some people are doing it for medical reasons, some people are doing it for personal reasons, beliefs, whatever it may be, it’s about to suck,” the airman said.

According to Department of the Air Force data, the department is still processing 4,933 active duty religious exemption requests. The service did not share the number of religious exemption requests in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. The deadline for vaccination in those components is Dec. 2, and the deadline for civilians employed by the military is Nov. 22.

There are about 326,000 service members in the active duty Air and Space Forces, and 501,000 including the Guard and Reserves. However much that number shrinks after Dec. 2 because of vaccine refusals, department officials say it is worth it for the health of the branch. According to data released on Wednesday, the department has suffered 73,131 reported cases of COVID-19 infection, 51 hospitalizations, and 139 deaths since the pandemic began in late 2019.

“Although we are encouraged by the falling number of cases, COVID-19 is still a very real threat,” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond. “We need each and every one of you to be healthy and ready; we need you and your loved ones to be protected so our team can continue to protect and defend the nation.”

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