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Judge rules Air Force cannot enforce COVID-19 vaccine mandate for 14 days

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (KRDO) -- Thursday, a federal judge in Cincinnati issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the U.S. Air Force from enforcing the military vaccine mandate.

According to court documents, obtained by 13 Investigates, the temporary restraining order applies to AFA cadets and Air Force service men and women for the next 14 days.

The pause comes from a Federal Judge in Cincinnati after he determined the Air Force had been systematically refusing to grant religious exemptions to almost everybody who applied. The injunction reads: “The facts show Defendants have engaged in a pattern of denying religious accommodation requests.”

According to the court documents, out of the 9,000 Airmen seeking religious accommodations, only 109 have been granted by either initial determination or an appeal.

The mandate orders the AFA to file a supplemental brief, no later than July 21, 2022, and no more than ten pages in length identifying why the court should not grant a class-wide preliminary injunction.

From there, the plaintiffs can file a response, limited to ten pages, to the supplemental brief by July 25, 2022.

This court mandate is in regards to cadets and service men and women who have The cadets and service men and women "submitted a religious accommodation request to the Air Force from the Air Force's COVID-19 vaccination requirement, where the request was submitted or was pending, from September 1, 2021, to the present; (ii) were confirmed as having had a sincerely held religious belief by or through Air Force Chaplains; and (iii) either had their requested accommodation denied or have not had action on that request."

John Michels Jr. represents several recent Air Force Academy grads who are now barred from serving in the force because of their refusal to get the shot.

"For the Academy folks, it's a little unclear as to exactly how this is going to apply," said Michels. "The court's reached back to September '21 and said, 'if you filed an exemption request, then then you're caught in this group. You're part of this group that I'm applying the injunction to.' But we're not really sure whether that's going to affect the status of the folks who, for example, were allowed to graduate but weren't commissioned.”

Michels doesn’t see the Air Force being required to commission those individuals, so they'll be in a state of limbo for at least two weeks.

But Michels also believes the ban on enforcing the mandate will likely be extended indefinitely, which is good news for his clients who were told Wednesday they'd be dis-enrolled from the Academy on August 1st if they didn't get the COVID-19 shot.

An extension could also open the door to a resolution for the recent grads.

"If the preliminary injunction is continued and extends out, they're going to be in this limbo status," said Michels. "The Air Force cannot move against them to discharge them. It can't move against them to recoup money. I don't believe the Air Force can be forced to commission them. So what I would hope is that Academy leadership would say, 'okay, let's get these guys' situations resolved. Let's either say we're going to commission them, or honorably discharged them, or something like that. But let's not let them hang in limbo.”

Compared to religious accommodation requests, the Air Force has granted 729 medical exemption requests and 1,006 administrative exemption requests. These exemptions have been issued since the AFA implemented its COVID-19 vaccination requirement policy on September 1, 2021.

"They could have simply come out and said this is an absolute no kidding drop dead duty requirement, if you can't get vaccinated, you're out," said Michels. "They could have, they could have done that across the board. They elected not to do that, and they put in religious accommodations. Once you put that in there, you have to make a good faith basis or a good faith effort to assess what the objections are and analyze how you're going to try to accommodate it. The Air Force is accused of not doing that."

An Air Force spokesperson issued the following statement to 13 Investigates in response to Thursday's ruling: “The Department of the Air Force will comply with the court order.”

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Mallory Anderson

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