Sen. Lankford demands DOD IG audit after Navy chaplain denied religious exemption to COVID-19 vaccine

February 19, 2022
Sen. Lankford demands DOD IG audit after Navy chaplain denied religious exemption to COVID-19 vaccine


By Houston Keene

FIRST ON FOX: Senator James Lankford, R-Ok., is demanding the acting inspector general of the Department of Defense (DOD) audit into the agency’s religious exemption requests for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Lankford will be sending a letter to Sean O’Donnell, the acting DOD inspector general, requesting the audit amid reports of a Navy chaplain and other sailors being denied a religious exemption.

“From the data points on religious accommodations for the COVID-19 vaccine that I have received, it is clear that DOD leaders are ignoring the sincerely-held religious beliefs of service members,” Lankford wrote.

“Until a few weeks ago, the U.S. military had not approved a single religious accommodation request across all branches,” the senator continued. “Since then, the Department has informed me they have approved twelve requests—all granted to service members who are already planning to separate from their service—out of thousands of requests.”

Lankford pointed out that the Army “still has not granted a single permanent religious accommodation despite thousands of requests” and that given “DOD’s track record, it is not unreasonable to presume these adjudications were made in an attempt to establish an outward perception of a just process in response to public outrage, rather than the result of credible analysis.”

The senator also called DOD’s “below 0.04 percent” approval rate of religious exemptions “shocking” and blasted the department as making “matters worse by using discriminatory, boilerplate responses in denial letters.”

“Examples shared with my office misapply U.S. law and discredit the sincerity of religious beliefs.” the letter reads. “In one denial reply shared by a Marine, the Commanding Officer stated that requiring the COVID-19 vaccine ‘does not substantially burden your sincerely held religious belief.’”

“Commanding Officers with no legal or spiritual training have no right to dictate what substantially burdens a service member’s sincerely held religious belief. The Department has a constitutional and statutory responsibility to accommodate religious exercise, even exercise with which it disagrees or views as negligible,” Lankford wrote. “DOD does not have the legal authority to second guess the reasonableness of a religious belief or the service member’s assessment of the religious connection between the mandate and his or her underlying belief.”

The senator also noted that the department’s “evasive replies, incomplete data, and continued delays have sparked considerable outrage on Capitol Hill” and provided a litany of questions for DOD to answer, including asking what “actions is DOD taking to ensure that military leaders who are evaluating religious accommodation requests” under federal statute “rather than the personal views of DOD leaders.”

Lankford’s letter comes after a Navy Reserve chaplain said earlier this month that the military is being used by the Biden administration as a “nice little test group” that “can’t say no” after he said he was denied a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine.

The chaplain, who spoke with Fox News Digital on the condition of anonymity, said he faces possible dismissal from the Navy after nearly two decades of service due to his refusal to get a vaccine.

He would miss out on crucial retirement pay and benefits if he’s dismissed before hitting the 20-year mark.

“It’s a kick in the gut for sure,” the chaplain said. “If I lose retirement benefits that way, that would be a pretty significant burden to me and my family. At the same time, this is a fight worth fighting. I do not think this is a lawful order.”

Fox News Digital’s Peter Hasson and Jessica Chasmar contributed reporting.