(The Center Square)
Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones’ testimony before a congressional committee about the forced evacuation of service members over the Defense Department’s COVID-19 vaccine order was “patently false,” a service member’s attorney told Center Square.
He was sworn in Tuesday before the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
The testimony contradicted a Defense Department inspector general report that found military branches, including the Air Force, were violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, U.S. Rep. said Matt Gaetz, R-Florida. Federal judges last year, including a panel of Sixth Circuit appellate judges, also ruled against Ortiz-Jones’ statements.
On Tuesday, he testified that the Air Force “did not discharge any officers as a result of their failure to comply with a lawful order.” For those who decided to voluntarily separate or retire instead, they did so voluntarily. “610 of them fell apart,” he said.
But Steve Crompton, general counsel for the Thomas More Society, told The Center Square, “Ortiz Jones was playing word games when he said the Air Force had never discharged any officers for failure to obey a lawful order. That may be true, but deceptive, because hundreds of enlisted men and women are equally valuable members of the Air Force, and he didn’t consider them.
Crompton said her claim that the Air Force had never discharged anyone for failing to obey a lawful order was “blatantly false.” Pointing to an April 2022 Military Times report that listed “how many service members were initially involuntarily separated from service for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine,” the Air Force released 287 airmen, “2% of whom received honorable discharges . . .”
“The Air Force may quibble over the exact rules used to terminate them, but the fact that they were discharged for refusing vaccination is undeniable,” Crompton said. And while the Air Force has not formally discharged anyone, he said, “Retirement or voluntary separation for refusing to take a vaccine is not voluntary; it is the essence of a constructive discharge. It’s humiliating any way you look at it.”
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Related: Rep. Gaetz: Navy captain’s testimony on military vaccine order contradicts IG report
The Thomas More Society is representing members of the Air Force in a lawsuit filed in Georgia in which US District Court Judge Tillman Self III issued a thunderous rebuke of the Air Force’s refusal to grant religious accommodation requests (RARs) last year. He explained how the plaintiffs’ chain of command justified denying religious exemptions: “Your religious beliefs are sincere, it’s not compatible with military service.”
“As blunt as it gets,” Self wrote. “True, he no doubt spoke for himself, but when one considers the Air Force’s abysmal record regarding religious accommodation requests, it turns out he was dead on target.”
Self noted that the percentage of Air Force issuing RARs is 0.24%.
In another lawsuit against the Air Force, US District Judge Matthew McFarland of the Southern District of Ohio barred DOD from enforcing an order against religious objectors and granted them class status. He ruled, “The facts show the defendants [the Air Force] Engaged in a pattern of denying religious accommodation requests.
A Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals judge denied the Air Force’s request to overturn its ruling, arguing that the Air Force was unlikely to win its case because it could not defend its arguments.
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The DOD-IOG report found that service members were issued blanket denial memos last year that “do not reflect an individualized analysis showing that a senior military official considered the full range of facts and circumstances relevant to a particular religious accommodation request.” Instead, he added “similar, identical words,” “I deny your request for an exemption from vaccinations under the provisions of AFI 48-110, paragraph 2-6.b.3.”
Crompton told The Center Square, “The continued refusal to recognize and respect the fundamental rights of religious freedom is a key reason why we continue to fight for servicemen and women across the country. The military’s constant attempts to whitewash their harsh behavior against loyalist troops is disgraceful.
Because the National Defense Authorization Act only requires the DOD to cancel the vaccine order, lawsuits over alleged RFRA violations are ongoing.
Syndicated with permission from The Center Square.