A federal judge in Cincinnati has expanded a temporary exemption to a Department of Defense COVID-19 vaccine mandate to cover thousands of service members in the U.S. Air Force and Space Force, according to court documents.
District Court Judge Matthew McFarland granted the class-wide preliminary injunction on Wednesday.
It applies to all active-duty, active reserve, reserve, national guard, inductees and appointees of the Air Force and Space Force who are seeking a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate, the documents state.
The order stems from a class-action lawsuit filed in February by 18 active-duty and reservist personnel stationed across the country, including at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Court docs: Air Force scientist had defense contractor hire Cincinnati sex worker as a researcher
In March, McFarland blocked high-ranking Air Force officials from taking disciplinary action against those service members, who are seeking religious exemptions to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
“The world as we knew it changed in March of 2020 with COVID-19’s inception and the shutdown of most of the world,” McFarland wrote in his initial order. “While a return to normalcy is desired, the cost of the return should never jeopardize religious liberty.”
The service members claim their statutory and constitutional rights to free exercise of religion are being violated by the government’s mandate, which was issued in August 2021.
Court documents say the service members face potential punishments, including demotions, discharges and courts-martial for refusing to comply with the mandate.
An attorney representing the federal government referred questions to a Department of Justice spokesperson. The Enquirer has left a message with that spokesperson seeking comment.
In court documents, attorneys for the government said “an injunction prohibiting the Air Force ‘from enforcing the vaccine mandate’ would improperly encroach on the military’s ability to make strategic and operational decisions necessary to discharge its mission.”
In his March order, McFarland noted that while the military’s mandate allows for medical, administrative and religious exemptions, very few religious exemptions have been granted.
As of July 12, the Air Force had approved 135 religious accommodation requests, while 2,847 requests remained pending, military officials said in court filings.
Court documents say the temporary exemption will remain in place for the service members while the case is being resolved.