FILE - Navy SEAL training

A U.S. Navy SEAL special forces operator, left, stands with a colleague during a joint U.S.-Cyprus military drill at Limassol port on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. 

(The Center Square) – Members of the U.S. military who’ve have had their religious accommodation requests (RAR) denied by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) are facing mental anguish and “cruel and unusual punishment,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver argues.

The Orlando-based religious freedom organization on Friday filed a declaration in Navy SEAL 1 v. Austin “revealing shocking evidence of the abuse, intimidation and retaliation military members are facing over the Biden shot mandate,” including at least two service members who’ve committed suicide.

“These military members are suffering mental anguish and great harm for standing up for their sincerely held religious convictions,” Staver said in a statement. “Others who have taken the shots are being physically injured. We continue the fight to uphold the religious freedom of the entire class of service members against unlawful shot mandates. [President] Joe Biden’s shot mandate is inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on America’s finest members of the military. This abuse must end.”

Liberty Counsel has received more than 1,000 legal assistance requests from service members from all military branches as of April 8, 2022, he said. Of them, 334 have received final denials of their RAR appeals.

One longtime service member whose RAR was denied, a Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force, tried to retire at a lower rank of Colonel. She was told her “religious beliefs are not compatible with service to the Country,” according to the declaration.

Those who committed suicide over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and RARs include a U.S. Marine and platoon mate of one of the plaintiff’s and a Coast Guard First Class Petty Officer, according to the declaration.

A military counselor said the pressure and punishment the Marine faced for his religious objection is what led to him committing suicide, according to the declaration. A U.S. Navy Chaplain also describes circumstances related to the RAR that contributed to the Coast Guard officer’s suicide, according to the declaration.

The DOD cannot force members of the military to get the COVID-19 vaccines or discharge personnel because they won’t get them for religious reasons, Liberty Counsel argues. The DOD argues it can discharge them, in addition to military members facing a range of consequences for not complying with the order, according to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s memo issued last August announcing the vaccine mandate.

While federal law requires the military to accommodate religious exemption requests, court filings show this hasn’t happened. As of Feb. 4, only 4 of 24,818 religious exemption requests were approved in all branches. At least two were granted to service members who were already leaving the military, Liberty Counsel says.

Over the same timeframe, 4,146 medical exemptions were granted, it points out.

The declaration was filed after the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected DOD’s request to reverse a lower court’s ruling granting a preliminary injunction request for two plaintiffs in Navy SEAL 1 v. Austin. Instead, it granted a partial stay pending appeal.

Its decision came after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a partial stay ruling in a different case, Navy SEALS 1-26. The order was narrow, only “insofar as it precludes the Navy from considering respondents’ vaccination status in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions.”

The case before the court of appeals and the district court are ongoing.

Liberty Counsel is seeking class certification to provide court-ordered protection for members of all military branches who filed RARs.

Last month, it filed a request with a U.S. District Court in Florida on behalf of military members in all branches in Navy SEAL 1 v. Austin after another U.S. District in Texas granted class certification and issued a class-wide preliminary injunction to protect Navy personnel who requested RARs.

In its request, Liberty Counsel points out that by last November, 99.4% of active-duty Navy service members were fully vaccinated. The minority who requested RARs, as stated in their declarations, “describe a catastrophic future if these class members remain unvaccinated.”

“Defendants’ claims that the unvaccinated class members ‘present an unacceptable risk to naval operations’ is hyperbolic, especially because these servicemembers successfully carried out their tasks in the pre-vaccine era of the pandemic,” according to its class certification request filed with the court.

Since COVID-19 cases have dropped dramatically worldwide, “the Navy’s interest in vaccinating the remaining 0.6% of its personnel – or less – does not outweigh the harm Plaintiffs are facing as they try to exercise their constitutional rights,” it argues.