A legal team is petitioning the Air Force to reinstate a fighter pilot’s clearances to fly and to view classified information after he was suspended for refusing to wear a mask on military property, citing religious concerns.
The unnamed airman, identified as Capt. John Doe by the nonprofit First Amendment litigation firm Liberty Counsel, argues his “Christian beliefs do not permit him to wear a mask,” said the firm, which specializes in religious freedom cases. He was suspended from duty on May 17 and from flying on June 8, according to the Washington Examiner.
A letter written on the pilot’s behalf by Liberty Counsel indicates the pilot belongs to the 49th Fighter Training Squadron at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi. The 49th FTS introduces students to fighter jet operations using the T-38 Talon trainer plane.
Liberty Counsel said Capt. Doe’s squadron and group commanders approved the request, and the pilot returned to flying without a mask, which many federal, state and local jurisdictions have required to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
According to the Washington Examiner, the pilot is unvaccinated. Pentagon and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance no longer require masks for fully vaccinated people in most places.
“Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recently released emails support the position that mask mandates are not based in science, but in a false social narrative,” Liberty Counsel wrote in a June 24 press release. “Many Christians such as Captain ‘Doe’ believe that support of a false narrative is participation in a lie, which is sin.”
Capt. Doe first asked his leadership to accommodate his beliefs on March 14, 2021 — about three months before the Washington Post and BuzzFeed published Fauci’s emails and articles based on the information in them. Higher officials later overturned the decision, sending it up to acting Air Force Secretary John Roth for a final say.
The Air Force did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the issue.
The pilot is relying on the faulty claim that Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, lied to the American public about the use of masks in curbing COVID-19′s spread. Emails obtained by media outlets under the Freedom of Information Act showed how Fauci’s views on mask effectiveness evolved as health officials learned more about how the coronavirus acts.
“Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection,” Fauci wrote on Feb. 5, 2020. “The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material.”
In a June 3 interview with CNN, more than a year after the pandemic began, Fauci noted that data now shows that “a substantial amount of transmission” comes from asymptomatic people and that non-hospital-grade masks can also work well to keep the respiratory virus out.
“You accumulate a lot more information, and you modify and adjust your opinion and your recommendation based on the current science and current data,” he said. “You are asking a question, ‘Would you have done something different if you [knew] what you know now?’ Of course.”
Public officials also discouraged mask-wearing early on in the pandemic because they worried about a shortage among health care providers. That changed as understanding of their importance grew, and as good-quality masks became more widely available.
Richard Mast, a senior litigation attorney at Liberty Counsel, argued in the letter that the Air Force could take other measures to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, like having the airman fly with the same group of people each day. The CDC still notes that “masks work best when everyone wears one,” and that “a mask is NOT a substitute for social distancing.”
The captain’s supervisor, an unnamed lieutenant colonel, decided to grant the exception despite some concerns about how it would affect the rest of the squadron, according to the letter. The airman wouldn’t cause widespread health problems in the broadly vaccinated unit, the lieutenant colonel said, but could influence noncompliance for others.
“Allowing a single member to report without a mask would adversely affect the good order and discipline of the unit,” the lieutenant colonel said of granting the exception in a letter sent from Liberty Counsel to acting Air Force Secretary John Roth. “It is hard to assess whether other airmen would request the same exception. … The harder challenge will be enforcing the mask mandate across the board, when other [squadron] members see that one person has an exception.”
When the decision went up the chain of command to the wing commander, an unnamed colonel, the official rejected the request. Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, the head of 19th Air Force, and Air Education and Training Command boss Lt. Gen. Brad Webb upheld the rejection upon appeal.
Charles Haynes, founding director of the Freedom Forum’s Religious Freedom Center, told Air Force Times the officer is unlikely to win out if the issue goes to court because military rules around religious liberty are stricter than for the general public.
“The bar is much higher. Generally, courts have deferred to military officials to determine what is best for order and discipline,” Haynes said. “See, for example, the 1986 Supreme Court decision in Goldman v. Weinberger in which the high court ruled that the military was not required by the First Amendment to allow an Air Force officer to wear a yarmulke when in uniform.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.