A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction Tuesday, allowing an Air Force officer to temporarily remain unvaccinated against the COVID-19 virus without punishment. 

The order, issued from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, makes the officer the first member of the Air Force to be excused from the Department of Defense’s vaccine mandate based on religious grounds. 

“The court is unquestionably confident that the Air Force will remain healthy enough to carry out its critical national defense mission even if plaintiff remains unvaccinated and is not forced to retire,” wrote Judge Tilman E. Self.

While the military has granted thousands of medical and administrative exemptions until recently there had been no exemptions granted based on religious grounds. Last month, however, a federal judge in Texas issued a similar ruling, temporarily blocking the Navy from punishing 35 special operators who had refused the vaccine on religious grounds. Shortly after, two Marines became the first service members to be granted religious exemptions from vaccination against the COVID-19 virus. 

As of Feb. 8, the Air Force has granted 1,476 medical and 1,837 administrative exemptions across the active duty, reserve, and national guard forces. It has rejected 3,222 religious exemptions and approved eight. 

Stephen Crampton, senior council for the Thomas More Society, who represented the officer in the case, said in a statement that these religious exemptions had all been granted after the lawsuit was filed. 

The officer, who was not named in court documents, has served for more than 25 years and currently works at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. She had previously been ordered to be vaccinated by Nov. 18, 2021, two weeks after the Air Force deadline for active-duty personnel to be fully vaccinated.

According to court documents, the officer’s religious objection was based on her sincere belief that, “receiving a vaccine that was derived from or tested on aborted fetal tissue in its development would violate her conscience and is contrary to her faith.”

Both Pfizer and Moderna use cells replicated from fetal tissue aborted in the 1970s, however fetal cells were not used in the production of either company’s vaccine. Likewise, Johnson & Johnson used cells from a fetus aborted in 1985 in the development of its vaccine, but those cells were filtered out of the final product

Court documents also stated that the officer had contracted COVID-19 in December 2020 and had fully recovered. She had also tested positive for antibodies in January and December 2021. While the Centers for Disease Control has urged those with a prior infection to get vaccinated and the federal mandate has not allowed personnel to claim the presence of antibodies in lieu of a vaccine, Judge Self questioned whether vaccines were as effective in preventing sickness than prior infection. 

The officer had initially applied for a religious exemption in October 2021, which was denied within two weeks. After an appeal was denied, the officer had chosen to take early retirement

Judge Self called the process of obtaining a religious exemption “nothing more than a quixotic quest,” and little more than, “theater,” quoting the judge in the prior Texas case. 

While it is unclear if the case will proceed to a trial, the judge did suggest that the officer’s claim that the vaccine mandate violates the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was likely to succeed in court.

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