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Air Force ordered to not enforce vaccine mandate under court order

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (KRDO) -- A federal judge in the Southern District of Ohio extended the time that the Air Force and the Air Force Academy could not enforce the COVID-19 vaccine mandate on Thursday. Two weeks ago, Judge Matthew W. McFarland placed a temporary restraining order on the AF and AFA that barred them from enforcing the mandate temporarily.

Now, a court order means they cannot enforce the mandate until a trial is held or the order is struck down on appeal. Both of which are potentially months down the road.

The preliminary injunction order states, "due to the systematic nature of what the Court views as violations of Airmen's constitutional rights to practice their religions as they please, the Court is well
within its bounds to extend the existing preliminary injunction to all Class Members."

Last month, 13 Investigates delved deep into vaccine mandates in the military and specifically how the COVID-19 vaccine mandate impacted unvaccinated cadets enrolled at the United States Air Force Academy.

Multiple Air Force Academy cadets were denied graduation and commissioning assignments because of their refusal to get vaccinated. The United States Department of Defense mandated the vaccine for them and all military members in August 2021.

Stephen Crampton, Senior Counsel attorney with Thomas More Society, is representing AF airmen in a similar lawsuit in Georgia. He says Thursday's ruling is the next step in the pursuit of a permanent junction against the vaccine mandate for all military members.

"This preliminary injunction sends a huge message across all branches that we are not going to tolerate this and we hope this will inject a little more backbone into other judges that are deciding these cases," Crampton said.

Crampton's argument, along with another federal lawsuit filed in South Carolina, was that the DOD violated military members' constitutional rights by overwhelmingly denying their religious accommodation requests.

"The Biden administration has decreed somewhat under the radar 'no religious exemptions to be granted. No matter what the branch. No matter what the circumstances,'" Crampton said.

A key ruling in the preliminary injunction is regarding the commissioning status of the unvaccinated cadets. Each of them were told they would not be commissioned post-graduation from the Academy.

However, the ruling states, "Defendants (AF and AFA) shall not refuse to accept for commissioning or enlistment any inductee or appointee due to their refusal to get vaccinated for COVID-19 due to their sincerely held religious beliefs."

Crampton said he believes that as long as the preliminary injunction is in place, the Air Force Academy will be required to commission the cadets.

"They must commission the cadets, but as to deployment and how they assign them, that's a decision that the military and the Air Force still have some discretion over," Crampton said.

After deciding not to get vaccinated, four AFA cadets submitted religious exemptions and subsequent appeals to the Surgeon General of the Air Force when the exemptions were denied.

Jameson Barnard, one of the four cadets, told 13 Investigates that all the cadets were given the exact same denial letter. The letter, dated December 22, 2021, states that "remaining unvaccinated poses a threat to all exposed."

13 Investigates spoke with Barnard on Thursday. He is now working a civilian engineering job and says he would no longer be interested in a commissioning assignment if offered one.

"At this point, I would not take commission just based on how this whole thing was handled," Barnard said. "It would have been nice if they would have at least considered our religious exemptions, but they only offered blanket denials."

13 Investigates reached out to the Air Force Academy to seek comment on how this order impacts the unvaccinated cadets. Dean Miller, Air Force Academy spokesperson said:

Based on the submittal date of religious accommodation requests from three cadets from the Class of 2022, the injunction does apply to them. The Department of the Air Force will comply with the court order. 

Dean Miller -- AFA Spokesperson
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Sean Rice

Sean is reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.

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