Thousands of airmen and guardians applied for a religious exemption to the coronavirus vaccine. But just a fraction of those who were turned down have filed an appeal, signaling most are opting to get the shots or get out.
Around 10,700 people, or 2% of all Air Force and Space Force members across the active duty, Reserve and Guard components, sought to avoid vaccination against COVID-19 on the grounds that it would violate their beliefs.
Officials had turned down 2,130 religious exemption requests as of Wednesday, saying it would hurt the service’s ability to carry out its military missions. Another 8,636 requests are still in the queue.
The Department of the Air Force does not break out Air Force and Space Force data separately. The vast majority of its members belong to USAF.
Service members first ask for an exemption from a “religious resolution teams” comprising chaplains, medical providers, judge advocates and other experts at multiple levels of the military. Those teams then recommend whether the head of a major command or field command should move forward. Commanders, however, get the final say in the matter.
So far, that’s meant zero approvals.
“Each member’s request is carefully considered to balance the government’s compelling interest in mission accomplishment with the service member’s sincerely held belief,” Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones said in a release Wednesday. “Commanders have to balance that member’s interests against the overall impact on operational readiness, health and safety of members, and good order and discipline within the unit.”
Religious accommodations are typically used to give service members leeway on rules banning beards or head coverings. They’ve become a tool of choice for those who distrust the COVID-19 vaccines but don’t want to lose their job, even though leaders of the world’s major religions have endorsed the shots on public health grounds.
Airmen and guardians have five days after their initial request is turned down to get their first vaccine, appeal or ask to leave their service. Air Force data shows the number of unvaccinated troops without exemptions dropped from 18,573 to 17,333 between Dec. 3 and 21.
Not many are choosing to appeal. Those who do are unsuccessful.
Fewer than 3 percent of the people who wanted a religious exemption, and around 13 percent of those who have already been denied, are pushing officials to reconsider their decision. Those figures could still grow as the several thousand remaining applicants are processed.
Nearly 290 airmen have appealed so far, about half of whom have failed. Another 150 or so are still pending at the Air Force Surgeon General’s Office.
Some airmen have complained on social media that their attempts to voluntarily leave the service were also overruled because of staffing and preparedness concerns. They argue that defeats the purpose of offering that option at all.
The Air Force hasn’t said how many people have tried to leave rather than get vaccinated.
The five-day clock again starts ticking once a person’s exemption appeal or request for separation or retirement is denied. If active duty members continue to refuse vaccination in that time, they will be let go — with full benefits for honorable discharges, and with all but GI Bill education benefits for general discharges.
As of Tuesday, 95.3% of all airmen and guardians were fully vaccinated with a two-dose Pfizer or Moderna regimen or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot. The Department of the Air Force does not report statistics on members who have received a booster dose, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now encourages.
The Air Force has extended its deadline for Air National Guard members to get vaccinated to Dec. 31 amid the federal government’s fight with some Republican-led states that are defying the military mandate to get protected.
Just over 91% of ANG members are fully vaccinated, with the most unvaccinated people of any Air Force component at about 8,200 troops. Their initial deadline was Dec. 2.
The virus has killed about 807,400 Americans as of Wednesday, and nearly 40% of the country remains unvaccinated, according to the CDC. Unvaccinated people are five times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 and 14 times more likely to die from it.
“I’d ask every airmen, who isn’t already, to please get vaccinated,” Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass said in the Wednesday release. “It’s about protecting yourselves, your family, your friends and your wingmen.”
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.