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Despite President Biden’s assertion that the COVID-19 pandemic is “over,” unvaccinated Air Force pilots seeking religious accommodations for the vaccination mandate are still prohibited from flying, even though those with medical exemptions can perform their usual duties.
Biden said during an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes Sunday: “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with Covid. We’re still working hard on it. It is, but the pandemic is over.”
The president’s statement comes amid an ongoing class action lawsuit in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to grant relief to more than 10,000 active duty, reserve, and Air Force and Space Force members of the National Guard not vaccinated who filed a religious exemption to the Pentagon’s vaccination mandate and were denied or are awaiting a decision. More recently, the Sixth Circuit ordered the Air Force to halt “disciplining or removal action” taken against the class while the lawsuit continues.
The Air Force told Fox News Digital through a spokesperson that the agency is complying with the 6th Circuit court order to stop sanctions against unvaccinated service members.
“The Department of the Air Force is complying with the court order to pause all disciplinary and adverse actions for those who have refused the COVID-19 vaccine and submitted a request for timely religious accommodation,” the spokesperson said. “This includes the processing of airmen from the Air Force Reserve Command to the Individual Ready Reserve.”
However, plaintiffs’ attorneys say that despite the court order, there is continued discrimination in assignments and operational decisions against members of the Air Force who are not vaccinated.
Attorney Chris Wiest told Fox News Digital that language contained in the Supreme Court’s order in another case on behalf of unvaccinated Navy SEALs seeking religious accommodations created an exception the Air Force is using to keep the pilots on the ground.
The Supreme Court said in March that the US military has broad discretion to make “deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions,” which it gave to the Navy, and has now extended to other branches of the military, the ability to use vaccination status as a factor. in deployments and service assignments.
As a result, the recent Sixth Circuit court order has made no difference to the fate of pilots on the ground, Wiest explained, because members of the Air Force who are not vaccinated are still having their assignments withdrawn or suspended, all within of the exception created by the Supreme Court in the Navy SEAL case. .
“The Air Force continues to prevent its members with religious objections to receiving the vaccine from performing many of their normal duties. The best example is that pilots who are not vaccinated for religious reasons have been grounded while pilots who are not vaccinated for medical reasons are flying,” said Danielle Runyan, a member of the Air Force Reserve and a counselor at the Institute First Liberty, which represents service members in Air Force and Navy SEAL class cases, is also one of the plaintiffs in the Air Force case.
“This will eventually lead to thousands of Airmen losing their careers because they will eventually be unable to advance to the next grade. There is nothing operational about these decisions, especially in light of the President’s announcement that the pandemic is over. Indeed, this is a serious threat to our national security that should alarm all Americans,” he continued.
Andy Grieb, a T-6 instructor pilot, was unable to fly for the Air Force because his religious accommodation request was denied. He told Fox News Digital that he serves as an initial pilot trainer for new lieutenants and has been doing the job for 10 years and has been a pilot for 21 years and loves it.
Last October, Grieb applied for a religious exemption to the mandate, knowing he had antibodies due to having COVID-19 early in the pandemic and also a deep-seated religious objection to getting vaccinated. He called the Air Force process “archaic and disorganized.” His initial waiver request was denied in January and his appeal received a final denial of appeal on May 4.
Grieb was initially not allowed to work or get retirement credits after May 4 until the 6th Circuit’s preliminary injunction in late July. Since then, he has been unable to fly and has been tasked with instructing Air Force students in a simulator, something he would never have done before.
He said he is “extremely frustrated.” Grieb continued, “I don’t know a single pilot who wants to do something other than fly. I mean, it seems like we do it because we love to fly. At least I do. I love to fly.”
He pointed out that his colleagues who received requests for medical accommodation to the vaccine can fly, while those who raised religious objections cannot. Another problem she now faces is trying to be able to maintain flight qualifications to further her Air Force career, without earning her flight hours or experience.
“Unvaccinated people who have a medical exemption continue to fly, while those like me have requested religious accommodations when denied. We are not allowed to fly,” she said.
In addition, he said that when he flies on a government plane, he wears safety equipment that includes an oxygen system that does not mix environments with the students he teaches. But inside the simulator, he is much closer to the students without protective gear.
“The Air Force is missing out on a valuable resource, which is instructors who are not teaching right now and not fulfilling their mission. On top of that, we have to maintain our Air Force qualifications in order to progress in a career. So the flying duties are the qualification,” Grieb explained.
The Air Force spokesman did not respond to Fox News Digital when asked why pilots who have applied for medical exemptions to the vaccine are allowed to fly, while those seeking religious accommodations are not.
The mother of an Air Force pilot included in the class action lawsuit told Fox News Digital that her son’s nearly 18-year career as a fighter pilot has been wiped out as he has been punished for his religious objection to receiving the vaccine. She called it a waste of taxpayer dollars to ground her son, a highly trained and decorated pilot.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, a retired Air Force brigadier general, told Fox News Digital that he has been in contact with many service members who have encountered similar issues.
“I have been in direct contact with many service members over the past year, including many from Nebraska, who have legitimate concerns about how the Pentagon has handled the processing and disposition of their requests for religious and medical exemptions,” he said. Bacon.
“Orders are orders, and I received every shot known to man when I served in uniform, but maybe it’s time to reassess this particular order. Based on the President’s recent statements on the pandemic, I personally am not convinced that we have struck the right balance between military risk and the Constitution. We need to consider the serious recruitment and retention issues now facing the military, and review the actions taken against those who did not receive the vaccine,” Bacon continued..
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Last week, the Pentagon’s acting inspector general issued a report, obtained by Fox News Digital, which stated that there are “troubling denials of requests for religious freedom accommodation of COVID-19 vaccination requirements.”
“We found a trend of generalized evaluations instead of the individualized evaluation required by federal law and Department of Defense and Military Service Policies”, continued in the report, issued to the secretary of defense.
The attorneys told Fox News Digital that they have not heard anything from the Air Force regarding the memo and have no reason to believe the agency will change course. However, they say the IG is keeping the Air Force’s “feet to the fire” and will hopefully lead to more transparency.
“The Air Force is trying to kick out people who have strong religious beliefs,” Wiest summed up.
The White House referred Fox News Digital to the Department of Defense.