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Navy SEAL commander files motion for religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine, according to report

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According to Fox News, a commander of one of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Groups filed a motion on December 5 with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals asking for accommodations to be made for members of his force who desire to refuse mandatory COVID-19 vaccines on religious grounds.

The case filing in question specifically centers around a Special Warfare Combatant Crewman (SWCC), who is referred to in the filing as “SWCC 3.” SWCCs are Special Operation Forces who operate Naval Special Warfare (NSW) combatant and other craft in maritime, coastal, and riverine environments.

The NSW command in question is referred to in the filing as the “Naval Special Warfare Reserve Component,” indicating likely Naval Special Warfare Group 11 (NSWG-11). Based in Coronado, CA, NSWG-11 is responsible for the reserve component of the Navy’s SEALs and SWCCs. It includes SEAL Team 17 on the West Coast and SEAL Team 18 on the East Coast. Reportedly, NSW reserves include approximately 350 SEALs, about half that number of SWCCs, and a larger number of support personnel.

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Special warfare combatant-craft crewmen (SWCC) transit the Salt River in northern Kentucky during pre-deployment, live-fire training, Aug. 25. The SWCCs, attached to Special Boat Team (SBT) 22 based in Stennis, Miss., employ the Special Operations Craft Riverine (SOC-R), which is specifically designed for the clandestine insertion and extraction of U.S. Navy SEALs and other special operations forces along shallow waterways and open water environments. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jayme Pastoric/U.S. Navy)

The NSW Group commander specifically refers to retention issues in his request for religious exemptions and notes that the Department of Defense’s refusal of such exemptions is having an adverse effect on his command’s recruiting, retention, and military readiness. There are currently 35 active duty SEALs and three SEAL reservists seeking religious exemptions to the COVID-19 mandate, according to Fox’s report.

It was unknown when the 5th Circuit would issue a ruling on the filing. But undoubtedly, following the ruling, both sides will likely look to bring their case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

As of October 2021, the U.S. military required the following vaccines for all members upon entering basic training: Adenovirus, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Influenza, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Meningococcal, Poliovirus, Tetanus-Diphtheria, and Varicella. Additional vaccines are administered for certain personnel based on risk and occupation.

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U.S. Marines Corps Sergeant Major Lonnie N. Travis Jr., Sgt. Maj. of II MEF receives the COVID vaccine on Camp Lejeune, N.C., Jan. 20, 2021. Vaccination distribution prioritization within the DoD and the Marine Corps will be consistent with the data-driven CDC guidance for national prioritization. Marines will continue to practice safety protocols to diminish the risk of COVID-19. All FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Samuel Lyden)

Service members are able to request exemptions on the grounds of health, religion, and administrative reasons. Those requested (and denied) exemptions for COVID-19 have been controversial since Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin required the COVID-19 vaccine for service members in the summer of 2021.

In March of 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Defense could take into account vaccine status when making personnel and operational decisions. In other words, NSW commanders were able to lawfully consider vaccine status of SEALs, SWCCs, and other NSW personnel when making decisions about whom to deploy, when, and where. Other legal challenges to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate remain and are sure to tie up courts for years to come.

Feature Image: Commander, Navy Installations Command Force Master Chief Greg A. Vidaurri receives his second COVID-19 vaccine at Branch Health Clinic Washington Navy Yard, Feb. 16, 2021. All FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Brian Morales)

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Frumentarius is a former Navy SEAL, former CIA officer, and currently a battalion chief in a career fire department in the Midwest.