Two lawsuits filed by service members challenging the Defense Department’s now-defunct COVID-19 vaccine mandate have ended in a settlement, according to an agreement filed Tuesday in a Florida federal court.
A judge awarded Liberty Counsel, the firm representing plaintiffs in Navy SEALs 1-26 v. Biden and Colonel Financial Management Officer, et al. v. Austin, $1.8 million to cover legal fees incurred during the cases, which were filed following Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s fall 2021 announcement that the COVID-19 vaccine would become mandatory for all troops.
“The military COVID shot mandate is dead,” Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel’s chairman, said in a statement. “Our heroic service members can no longer be forced to take this experimental jab that conflicts with their religious convictions.”
Several lawsuits popped up in the wake of the new mandate, many arguing that troops were unfairly denied religious exemptions to the vaccine and therefore faced involuntary separation from service.
Religious vaccine exemptions have been historically rare throughout the services, with medical or administrative exceptions much more common, but still in small numbers. Several hundred religious waivers were granted while the mandate was in effect.
Of 17,000 service members who refused the vaccine, according to data provided to Military Times in early 2023, more than 8,000 were discharged and another 1,000 received exemptions before the mandate’s recision in January left the rest off the hook for punishment.
“The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all service members,” Austin wrote in the memo repealing the mandate. “The Department has made COVID-19 vaccination as easy and convenient as possible, resulting in vaccines administered to over two million service members and 96 percent of the force ― Active and Reserve ― being fully vaccinated.”
Involuntarily separated troops, who mostly received general discharges, are able to upgrade their discharges by filing with their service’s board for correction of records. Those troops are also able to rejoin the military.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.