By BETHANY BLANKLEY | THE CENTER SQUARE
Even after the Coast Guard rescinded its Covid-19 vaccine mandate in January, service members remain in limbo.
The nonprofit Thomas More Society filed a class action lawsuit in November against the Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard.
Now speaking out on behalf of 1,200 service members is three-star Vice Admiral William Lee, who filed a sworn declaration, hoping it would compel the judge presiding over their case to act.
The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Fort Worth Division on behalf the Coast Guard plaintiffs.
Like thousands of other plaintiffs in other military mandate-related lawsuits, they filed religious accommodation requests – known as RARs – as exemptions, which were denied.
The U.S. Coast Guard has 41,700 full-time active-duty service members, 7,800 part-time reservists, and 8,300 civilian workers.
The conscientious objectors, representing as much as one out of every 50 members, faced demotion, retaliation and involuntary discharge for refusing to take an experimental drug developed with or tested on aborted fetal cell lines. The plaintiffs argue that it violates their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Courts presiding over military mandate lawsuits nationwide argued blanket denials of RARs violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General reached the same conclusion.
However, “the Coast Guard is the only branch where no court has ruled that what they did to unvaccinated members was unlawful,” Thomas More Society Senior Counsel Stephen Crampton told The Center Square.
“The harms inflicted on the ‘Coasties’ have not been remedied,” he said. “One of the plaintiffs was denied a promotion two years ago solely because he was unvaccinated, and the Coast Guard is still refusing to give him a promotion. Another would have been able to participate in classes to help obtain a merit-based promotion but was denied the opportunity to attend solely because he was unvaccinated.”
Numerous other examples exist, Crampton said, but “the Coast Guard remains disinterested at best remedying these wrong impacting these Coasties because of their unvaccinated status. That’s why they need an answer.”
The Coast Guard continues to maintain its Covid-19 vaccine mandate was a lawful order and has the right to reinstitute it or any other mandate at will. As a result, Crampton said, “In effect, we are left with ‘we’ll just erase this,’ and that’s wholly unacceptable.”
In light of the sacrifice so many in the Coast Guard have made before him, with him and after him, retired three-star Vice Admiral William Lee said he could not remain silent. He told The Center Square, “I chose to speak out on this issue because I have questions, as do many Americans, about ethical and legal lines that may have been crossed when leaders forced an experimental vaccine on a workforce without informed consent and without due process under RFRA.
“At the heart of the matter is trust. If the most trusted institution in America is to maintain that hard-earned trust, then leaders currently in charge should be more than willing to examine, and put to bed, any remaining ambiguity in these matters, else we will be doomed to make the same mistake, or have the same arguments, next time around.”
Lee, who served for 36 years, was the operational commander for all Coast Guard missions from the Rocky Mountains to the Arabian Gulf. He commanded over 100 ships, over half of the Coast Guard’s aircraft, and roughly two-thirds of operational personnel.
In his five-page declaration, he acknowledges the Coast Guard rescinded its vaccine mandate and directed all adverse paperwork documenting noncompliance with the vaccine mandate be removed from service members’ records. However, these actions “are not sufficient to halt all ongoing harms objecting service members are facing and will face during their careers in the Coast Guard,” he argues.
Because of the “tight-knit” smaller size of the Coast Guard, he said, personnel decisions being made are still adversely impacting service members whose RARs were rejected. Because of this, he said, “There is a very strong likelihood that institutional memory of a service member’s noncompliance will harm the service reputation of religious objectors, resulting in fewer opportunities and fewer promotions.”
Filing his declaration, he said, “comes with considerable personal angst, for I find myself at odds with the institution that I love, and with current leaders whom I admire and respect.”
Crampton also said their class action was unlike any other case he’s worked on in his career. Class actions “are cumbersome, expensive, and take a great deal of time and energy to litigate,” he said, and “the chance of recovering huge damages serves as an incentive.”
In this case, representing over 1,200 conscientious religious objectors, they aim to protect “precious constitutional rights, not recover large damages. It is our hope that the Coast Guard will do the right thing, admit its past wrongs, and make whole those brave men and women who refused to violate their deeply held religious beliefs. In our constitutional republic, religious freedom should be esteemed, not assailed.”
The case continues after Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, in a seven-page blistering rebuke of lockdown policies and mandates, said the mandates were the “greatest intrusions on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country.”