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Advocates worry military vaccine challenges could jeopardize other religious freedom cases

The Navy granted Petty Officer First Class Juwairiya Webb an accommodation under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to wear a hijab while on duty. Some attorneys worry that religious challenges to the military's COVID vaccine mandate may endanger future religious freedom cases
Carlos Castillo
The Navy granted Petty Officer First Class Juwairiya Webb an accommodation under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to wear a hijab while on duty. Some attorneys worry that religious challenges to the military's COVID vaccine mandate may endanger future religious freedom cases.

The military is taking a hard line on troops seeking religious exemptions to the COVID vaccine mandate. Lawyers say that could have consequences for others who seek different kinds of religious accommodations.

Petty Officer First Class Juwairiya Webb joined the Navy after Sept. 11, 2001. She’s Muslim, but commanders told her at boot camp that she could not cover her hair with a traditional hijab.

“I felt naked,” Webb said. “I felt like everyone was looking at me. I felt uncomfortable, but it took time for me to get used to it.”

She still covered her hair when she was out of uniform. And as her faith deepened, she decided to challenge the Navy's decision. With the help of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, she sought an accommodation under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

A few months ago, her command granted her request. While the Navy reserved the right to limit where she wears her hijab, it allowed her to do so in her normal duties.

“It's something that I've always wanted to do,” Webb said. “It also made me feel really proud, because now I'm representing Muslims, and they can see how we really are.”

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act — known as RFRA — has been in the spotlight as a number of troops, including a group of Navy SEALs, filed lawsuits on religious grounds. They're challenging the military COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The Pentagon is discharging troops who refuse the shot.

Though mainstream Christian leaders support the vaccine, RFRA cases raise several religious objections to it, including a claim that cells used to research the vaccine were ancestors of aborted cells decades earlier.

Attorney Daniel Blomberg’s firm handles religious freedom cases. He's not involved in COVID lawsuits, but he worries his clients could be impacted. He said the Navy is bypassing the normal process for granting religious accommodations and taking a hard line on people who are seeking accommodations to avoid the vaccine.

“I think the process itself is causing a significant part of the problem,” Blomberg said. “But then the big problem is that nobody is getting granted."

More than 3,000 sailors have applied for religious exemptions since the mandate took effect in November. The Navy said it has allowed 27 sailors who sought religious exemptions to opt out, but all of those sailors were already scheduled to leave the Navy by June 1.

Blomberg fears the Navy's posture in the vaccine cases might make it easier for the military to deny other religious accommodations.

“If a service Member has a sincere religious belief, and the government substantially burdens it, then the government has to have a really good reason to do that," Blomberg said.

Blomberg has represented Sikhs who have filed lawsuits to wear traditional turbans and other sailors whose faith emphasizes wearing beards. He said the law is supposed to find reasonable accommodation wherever practical.

“They're going to be some environments that will not be as conducive for having a bearded Jew or Sikhs or Muslim serving,” he said, “and so those individuals will have the opportunity to serve in other contexts.”

He said an unvaccinated SEAL can be assigned to work a desk job rather than in the close quarters of a boat. But they shouldn’t be discharged.

Navy leaders have told the courts they see vaccination as the way back to normal after crippling COVID-19 outbreaks sidelined ships.

“COVID is a force readiness issue,” said Navy Surgeon General Bruce Gillingham in a video to sailors. ”And there is no better protection for an individual, a family or the community than getting the immunity that comes from being vaccinated.”

Each of the services is facing lawsuits from troops seeking religious exemptions to receiving the COVID-19 vaccination. The Navy won a victory in March when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it cannot be compelled to deploy unvaccinated sailors.

"Navy personnel routinely operate for extended periods of time in confined spaces

that are ripe breeding grounds for respiratory illnesses," the U.S. Justice Department argued in that case. "A SEAL who falls ill not only cannot complete his or her own mission, but risks infecting others as well, particularly in close quarters, including on submarines. A severe illness could require impractical or impossible evacuation and could jeopardize mission success."

But a federal judge issued an injunction barring the Navy from discharging sailors who seek religious exemption. That decision may also be headed to the Supreme Court.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.