COVID vaccine: Court injunction stops Air Force action against Wright-Patterson personnel

Air Force members sue after denial of religious exemption from vaccine mandate.

A new federal court preliminary injunction stays any separation or disciplinary action against 18 Air Force plaintiffs who have refused the COVID-19 vaccine that’s mandated by the Air Force.

Eleven of the 18 — 10 officers and one enlisted Airman — are serving at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base or served there recently.

The preliminary injunction is not a final ruling.

“No disciplinary or separation measures can be taken against these folks,” as their lawsuit proceeds, attorney Christopher Wiest, who represents the plaintiffs in the case, told the Dayton Daily News on Friday. “A class action motion is pending to extend it to all of the Air Force.”

Defendants in the case include Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and the Department of the Air Force, who have argued that the service has compelling health and readiness reasons to require the vaccine.

Judge Matthew McFarland, in Cincinnati’s U.S. District Court, issued the ruling Thursday, enjoining the Air Force from taking actions against the plaintiffs, who contend that the military branch has perfunctorily dismissed requests for exemptions for religious reasons from the service’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

“Plaintiffs continue to face serious repercussions by refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine in light of defendants’ denial of their religious exemptions,” McFarland wrote in the filing.

Those “repercussions” include “adverse administrative actions, non-judicial punishment, administrative demotions, admirative discharges and courts-martial,” he wrote.

“Further, each of the plaintiffs who testified at the hearing indicated that they were being threatened with imprisonment for refusing the vaccine without an exemption,” the judge also wrote. “Accordingly, an imminent threat of punitive action by defendants is present and appears likely to come to pass.”

In a similar but separate case, U.S. District Judge Thomas Rose late last month granted another Wright-Patterson officer a preliminary injunction.

In that case, Michael Poffenbarger, a second lieutenant assigned to the 455th Operational Support Squadron at Wright-Patterson, sued in January over what he said was the “perfunctory” denial of his request for a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate.

An Air Force representative has declined to comment on the lawsuits. A December 2021 memo from the Air Force directs commanders to take “appropriate administrative and disciplinary actions consistent with federal law and Department of the Air Force ... policy in addressing service members who refuse to obey a lawful order to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and do not have a pending separation or retirement, or medical, religious or administrative exemption.”

Refusal to comply with the vaccination mandate could result in discharge from the service, Kendall and others have said.

As of March 28, the Air Force had approved 1,102 exemptions from the mandate for medical reasons across the total force — active-duty, Reserve and National Guard members. Exemptions approved for administrative reasons amounted to 1,407.

A total of 25 religious accommodation requests had been approved, as of March 28, with more than 6,100 such requests being denied.

Among all personnel, 96.5% have been fully vaccinated, the Air Force said this week.

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