More than 10,000 requests for a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate have been received by the Department of the Air Force.
The department is processing the requests, and as of Dec. 22, 2021, 2,130 have been disapproved due to military readiness considerations.
Each request is individually reviewed by Religious Resolution Teams at the wing, garrison, major command and field command levels, which are made up of chaplains, medical providers, judge advocates, and other subject matter experts. Religious Resolution Teams make recommendations on determining the least restrictive means possible to accommodate a sincerely held belief without putting mission accomplishment at risk.
The major command or field command level serves as the approval authority for recommendations regarding accommodation requests. Each commander determines if the accommodation can be made without adversely impacting military readiness based on the health and safety of the unit and member, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline. If the commander determines the accommodation cannot be made without adversely affecting any one of those factors, he or she will deny the religious accommodation request. At this point, the member has the ability to appeal the denial to the Air Force Surgeon General.
“Each member’s request is carefully considered to balance the government’s compelling interest in mission accomplishment with the service member’s sincerely held belief,” said Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones. “Although the chaplain may advise the member’s belief is sincere, MAJCOM and FLDCOM commanders have to balance that member’s interests against the overall impact on operational readiness, health and safety of members and good order and discipline within the unit.”
Based on the number of disapproved accommodation requests at this point, Airmen and Guardians are encouraged to consider that operational requirements could result in requests for religious accommodations being denied.
“We’ll continue to be as transparent and thorough as possible throughout this process and update everyone on the status of requests in a timely fashion,” Jones added. “We want to ensure Airmen and Guardians have the information necessary to make well-informed decisions.”
To date, more than 95 percent of Total Force Airmen and Guardians have been vaccinated. The deadline for active duty Airmen and Guardians to be vaccinated was Nov. 2, while Air Force Reserve Airmen had until Dec. 2 to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The deadline for Air National Guard members was extended to Dec. 31.
Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass reiterated the importance of ensuring service members are protecting themselves, others and the unit.
“The readiness of our Air Force, and the lives of our people, are directly contingent upon the ability of our Airmen to carry out the mission, anytime, anywhere,” said Bass. “While each exemption request is being carefully reviewed and presented to commanders, I’d ask every Airmen, who isn’t already, to please get vaccinated. It’s about protecting yourselves, your family, your friends and your wingmen.”
Members who receive a denial of their religious accommodation have five calendar days from denial of their request to do one of the following:
- Begin a COVID-19 vaccination regimen. If the service member indicates their intent is to begin the vaccination regimen, commanders may use their discretion to adjust the five-day timeline based on local COVID-19 vaccination supplies;
- Submit an appeal to the final appeal authority for a religious accommodation request. If a final appeal is denied, the service member will have five calendar days from notice of denial to begin the COVID-19 vaccination regimen;
- If able, based upon the absence of a limited Military Service Obligation, the service member may request to separate or retire on or before April 1, 2022, or no later than the first day of the fifth month following initial or final appeal denial.
Service members who continue to refuse to obey a lawful order to receive the COVID-19 vaccine after their exemption request/final appeal has been denied or retirement/separation has not been approved will be subject to initiation of administrative discharge proceedings.
In accordance with the pending Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, the discharge characterization will be honorable or general under honorable conditions for those cases where refusing the vaccine is the sole basis of the discharge.