(The Center Square) – Undersecretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones' testimony before a congressional committee about service members being forced out over the Department of Defense COVID-19 vaccine mandate was “demonstrably untrue,” service members’ attorney told The Center Square.
She testified under oath on Tuesday before the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
The testimony given also contradicted a Department of Defense Inspector General report that found that military branches, including the Air Force, were violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, said. Federal judges last year, including a panel of Sixth Circuit appellate judges, also ruled to the contrary of Ortiz Jones’ statements.
On Tuesday, she testified that the Air Force “did not discharge any officers as a result of them failing to obey a lawful order. For those that opted to voluntarily separate or retire in lieu of, they voluntarily did that.” Among them “were 610 that were separated,” she said.
But Steve Crampton, general counsel with the Thomas More Society, told The Center Square, “Ortiz Jones was likely playing word games when she said the Air Force had not discharged any officers for failure to obey a lawful order. That may be true, but deceptive, because the hundreds of enlisted men and women discharged are equally valuable members of the Air Force and she did not even consider them.”
Her claim that the Air Force didn’t discharge anyone for failure to obey a lawful order, Crampton said, “is demonstrably untrue.” Pointing to an April 2022, Military Times report, which listed how many service members were initially “involuntarily separated from service for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” the Air Force had discharged 287 airmen, “2% of whom received honorable discharges.”
“The Air Force may quibble about the precise terms employed in terminating them, but the fact that they were discharged for refusing the vaccine is undeniable,” Crampton said. And even if the Air Force hadn’t formally discharged anyone, he said, “retirement or voluntary separation in the face of termination for refusal to take the vaccine is hardly voluntary; it is the essence of a constructive discharge. It is disgraceful any way you look at it.”
Thomas More Society is representing Air Force members in a lawsuit filed in Georgia in which U.S. District Court Judge Tilman Self III last year issued a blistering rebuke of the Air Force’s refusal to grant religious accommodation requests (RARs). He described how the plaintiffs' chain of command justified denying religious exemptions as: “Your religious beliefs are sincere, it’s just not compatible with military service.”
“That’s about as blunt as it gets,” Self wrote. “True, he undoubtedly spoke for himself, but when considering the Air Force’s abysmal record regarding religious accommodations requests, it turns out he was dead on target.”
Self noted that the Air Force’s percentage of granting RARs was 0.24%.
In another lawsuit against the Air Force, U.S. District Judge Matthew McFarland for the Southern District of Ohio prohibited it from enforcing the DOD mandate against religious objectors and granted them class status. He ruled, “The facts show Defendants [the Air Force] have engaged in a pattern of denying religious accommodation requests.”
Sixth Circuit Appeals Court judges also denied the Air Force’s request to overturn his ruling, arguing the Air Force wasn’t likely to win its case because it couldn’t defend its arguments.
The DOD-IOG report found last year that blanket denial memorandums were given to service members that didn’t “reflect an individualized analysis, demonstrating that the Senior Military Official considered the full range of facts and circumstances relevant to the particular religious accommodation request.” Instead, they included “similar, if not identical, wording,” like one issued by the Air Force stating, “I disapprove your request for exemption from vaccinations under the provisions of AFI 48-110, paragraph 2-6.b.3.”
Crampton told The Center Square, “The continued refusal to recognize and respect fundamental rights to religious freedom is one major reason why we will continue to fight for servicemen and women all over the country. The military's persistent efforts to whitewash their harsh treatment of faithful troops is disgraceful."
Because the National Defense Authorization Act only required the DOD to rescind the vaccine mandate, lawsuits are ongoing over alleged RFRA violations.