USAF Christian Pilot Objects to COVID Mask, Vaccine

Though it doesn’t seem to have broken into the mainstream press, a US Air Force instructor pilot at Columbus AFB, Mississippi, has been fighting for months to have the military honor his religious objection to wearing a mask. Two of the pilot’s superiors approved the request, despite some misgivings. However, a third superior overturned that approval. As discussed in July:

The unnamed airman, identified as Capt. John Doe by the nonprofit First Amendment litigation firm Liberty Counsel, argues his “Christian beliefs do not permit him to wear a mask,” said the firm, which specializes in religious freedom cases. He was suspended from duty on May 17 and from flying on June 8…

As hills to die on go, this wouldn’t be an ideal choice… but he does have a point.

In the Air Force policy requiring masks published last February, the very first exception was for religious beliefs:

Effective immediately all individuals on Department property…will wear masks… The DAF-wide exceptions are as follows:

(1) when necessary to reasonably accommodate a religious belief…

Capt “Doe” notes that two chaplains verified the sincerity of his religious beliefs, and multiple DoD policies – besides the explicit exception in the mask policy – direct that the DoD will accommodate religious beliefs. When denied, Doe basically characterized the military’s “exception” as a farce, since there was apparently no way a mask exception would actually be permitted for religious reasons.

One critic accurately pointed out that the US military is permitted to restrict what might otherwise be protected as religious freedom under the US Constitution, referencing Goldman v. Weinberger. However, that reference ignores the fact the US Congress responded to Weinberger by changing military policies to require the Air Force to do what the US Supreme Court said the military wasn’t required to do under the Constitution.

In other words, while the Constitution does not require the US military to protect the religious exercise of its troops, US law does.

Multiple laws and military policies require accommodation, with very few exceptions that relate specifically to mission accomplishment. In Capt Doe’s case, there has been no indication that the mission would be adversely affected by him not wearing a mask. This was particularly true when vaccinated individuals were no longer required to wear a mask, since there was no visible difference between him and any other person.

That said, why does Capt Doe object to the mask? It appears to be a call to integrity:

Mandatory masking is seen by many as the cornerstone of a social narrative – an “orthodoxy” – that COVID-19 justifies unprecedented restrictions on individual, economic, and religious liberties. A mask mandate may offend the conscience of an objector, forcing him to confess “by act” his faith in what he perceives as a false narrative. Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recently released emails support the position that mask mandates are not based in science, but in a false social narrative. Many Christians such as Captain “Doe” believe that support of a false narrative is participation in a lie, which is sin.

The intent to avoid “participation in a lie” is absolutely a valid qualification for religious exemption. It is, in essence, the same argument used by Christians who decline to recognize homosexual “marriages,” even in their official capacities.

It is also much of the argument currently used by those who object to using “preferred pronouns” for individuals, rather than the biologically-correct pronouns based on a person’s actual (not “preferred”) gender.

One problem for Liberty Counsel’s Capt Doe is that he is objecting to participating in a “narrative”, which is predicated on perception and messaging. The wearing of a mask is morally neutral; Doe objects to the wearing of a mask only in this context. By contrast, those who may be required to address a woman as if she were a man would object to participating in a falsified fact; it is not a morally neutral act to address a person of one gender as if they were the other.

Also, opposing a “narrative” inherently presumes the motivations of all involved. For example, the US military may have no dog in the fight over the political argument that posits the use of COVID masks “participate in a lie”. Perhaps the military just wants to avoid mass simultaneous infections (regardless of the effectiveness of masks to that end), much like they would like to avoid troops all coming down with the flu at the same time. Even if the original argument is objectionable, the military’s argument may not be a derivative of it.

In those regards, a COVID mask objection is not the best test case for military religious freedom.

That said, the government is not allowed to judge the quality of that religious belief – only that the Airman sincerely holds it. Doe has requested a religious accommodation to avoid “participation in a lie,” and has sincere religious beliefs to that end. According to the US military’s own policies, it should grant that accommodation – which two of Doe’s superiors did, prior to being overruled.

If the US military is willing to grant visible religious policy exemptions for US troops who claim to follow faiths headed by Marvel super heroes, why can’t they grant an exception for someone who is making a claim to integrity?

They could, if they wanted to – and Capt Doe may have a point. There is absolutely no mission impact to his request for a religious exemption to the mask mandate, but to maintain the public face of virtue signaling, the Air Force may not be able to actually implement its own explicit exception to policy. For now, that represents Doe’s strongest argument: The Air Force recognized the potential (and legal) need for religious exemptions when it originally wrote the policy, but it refuses to actually grant one.

The Department of Defense is preparing to enforce a COVID vaccine mandate, and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said religious exemptions will still be available (if rare). It remains to be seen, however, if such exemptions would actually be granted.

The COVID vaccine mandate has inspired a rash of inquiries into ways to avoid it, including religious accommodation, as noted at Task & Purpose – which also highlighted the history of courts-martial for those who refused the anthrax vaccine.

In the interest of completing the story, it’s worth noting that publicity-seeker and general malcontent Michael “Mikey” Weinstein has yet to comment on this specific story. It’s likely he hasn’t even heard about it until now (in reading this article), given how distracted his “research assistant” Chris Rodda seems to be. That said, Rodda did post a rant on a blog that denigrated virtually all US troops that might actually seek a religious exemption. According to the MRFF, a “genuine” objector wouldn’t even need their help, since it is a requirement, in Chris Rodda’s mind, that an objection to the COVID vaccine be predated by an objection to every other vaccine. The MRFF has stated they will only support religious exemption requests to those who object to all vaccines:

Unless the service member really does belong to a religion that sincerely objects to vaccinations – ALL vaccinations, not just the COVID ones – our response will be: Sorry, Soldier, we’re not buying your sudden religious devoutness against getting vaccinated.

The MRFF’s wholesale refusal to consider that one could legitimately have a religious objection despite previously getting vaccines seems to be predicated on an underlying premise that “anti-vaxxers” are inherently conservative Republicans; therefore, requiring the vaccine (the opposite of what those conservatives presumably want) is good in their eyes. The irony, of course, is that the vaccines we have today were due in large part to the efforts of then-President Trump. Conservative Republicans generally don’t object to the vaccine; they object to being required to take it.

For the record, the US military also requires an annual flu shot. Even if you consider COVID to be a 99.9% recovery non-event, as many do, the same could be said of the flu. Whether you view it to be a political exercise or not, it is within the military’s purview to require vaccinations.

Of course, they also say they permit religious exemptions. It remains to be seen whether they actually grant any of the exemptions they say they’ll accept.

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