WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Friday sided with the Biden administration in a battle over COVID-19 vaccine requirements for a group of Navy SEALs and other special forces who sought a religious exemption.
Nearly three dozen Naval personnel, including 26 members of the elite Navy SEALs, asserted the Navy’s vaccine requirements violated the First Amendment’s guarantee that people may practice religion without government interference.
But President Joe Biden’s administration countered that lower court rulings siding with servicemembers usurped the Navy’s authority to deploy them and execute missions.
The court issued an unsigned order Friday that put a lower court’s ruling on hold.
“Under Article II of the Constitution, the president of the United States, not any federal judge, is the commander in chief of the armed forces,” Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion. “In light of that bedrock constitutional principle, ‘courts traditionally have been reluctant to intrude upon the authority of the Executive in military and national security affairs.’”
Three conservatives, Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, dissented from the decision.
“By rubberstamping the government’s request for what it calls a ‘partial stay,’ the court does a great injustice to the 35 respondents – Navy Seals and others in the naval special warfare community – who have volunteered to undertake demanding and hazardous duties to defend our country,” Alito wrote in a dissent joined by Gorsuch. “These individuals appear to have been treated shabbily by the Navy, and the Court brushes all that aside. I would not do so, and I therefore dissent.”
Vaccine requirements are “the least restrictive means of furthering the Navy’s compelling interests in ensuring that members of the Special Warfare community are as physically prepared as possible to execute their demanding missions and in minimizing avoidable risks to mission success,” the government had told the high court.
A federal trial court in Texas blocked the Department of Defense from enforcing the COVID-19 requirements. Asserting that the Navy had granted hundreds of medical exemptions but had not been nearly as generous with religious objectors, the Louisiana-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit also sided with the SEALs.
Well over 90% of the military has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including at least 98.5% of active and reserve members of the Navy. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has asserted that vaccines are a valid and necessary medical requirement to protect service members and their families and ensure the combat readiness of the force.
The Supreme Court has largely ducked the issue of COVID-19 requirements. Last year, it repeatedly declined to take up challenges to state vaccine mandates in Maine, New York and at a public university in Indiana. Most of those cases were focused on whether states could impose mandates without a religious exemption.
But in January, the court halted enforcement of Biden’s testing-or-vaccine requirement for large employers, ruling his administration lacked the authority to impose that mandate. The justices, however, permitted a federal vaccine mandate for people employed at health care facilities that receive federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid. That measure affects roughly 10 million workers.