OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.
As the Russia-Ukraine war continues to rage, the U.S. Navy is in a “stand-off” with the commander of a new warship that cost taxpayers nearly $2 billion to build over his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“An ongoing legal battle over whether the military can force troops to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has left the Navy with a warship they say they can’t deploy because it is commanded by an officer they cannot fire,” the Navy Times reported Tuesday. “It’s a standoff the brass are calling a ‘manifest national security concern,’ according to recent federal court filings.”
The outlet continues:
The issues stem from a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida late last year alleging servicemembers’ rights are being infringed upon by the COVID vaccine mandate because their religious beliefs prevent them from taking the vaccine.
Judge Steven D. Merryday issue an order last month banning the Navy and Marine Corps from taking any disciplinary action against the unnamed Navy warship commander and a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel for refusing the vaccine.
In the process, the case has raised questions about the lines between military good order and discipline, and the legal rights of servicemembers as American citizens.
“What’s more, the government’s contention that vaccination against COVID maximizes the health and safety of service members is not in dispute,” he wrote.
“The defendants might prefer to argue that question, but the plaintiffs and the court address only the question presented in the RFRA claim,” Merryday’s order states.
Merryday’s injunction is “an extraordinary intrusion upon the inner workings of the military” and has essentially left the Navy short a vitally needed warship, according to a Feb. 28 filing by the government.
“With respect to Navy Commander, the Navy has lost confidence in his ability to lead and will not deploy the warship with him in command,” the filing states.
Though the government is framing the issue in terms of harming national security, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said that the case centers more around the rights afforded them under the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the latter of which bars the government from substantially burdening someone’s free exercise of religion.
Still, in court the Navy is claiming that the commander has also demonstrated additional callous behavior including exposing the 320-member crew to COVID-19 in November after he came down with the virus.
“By forcing the Navy to keep in place a commander of a destroyer who has lost the trust of his superior officers and the Navy at large, this Order effectively places a multi-billion-dollar guided missile destroyer out of commission,” the government claimed in court.
But the commander’s attorneys argue that “The Navy’s feigned ‘loss of confidence’ in the Commander is patently pretextual and has everything to do with the Commander’s lawful and orderly attempt to obtain judicial relief from an unconstitutional mandate.”
The Times went on to report that the plaintiff’s attorneys also argued that “the ship was underway for more than 300 days during the 400 pandemic days when no vaccine was available” and there was no “no operational impediment.”
“If there is injury to the Navy from shutting down the Commander’s ship, it is self-inflicted and intentional,” the filing claimed.
Other ranking naval officers have issued statements condemning the destroyer captain’s decision, according to the Times:
Vice Adm. Daniel Dwyer, the head of U.S. 2nd Fleet, called the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in the case “profoundly concerning.”
“The prospect of a subordinate commander in charge of other Service members or military assets disregarding the orders of his or her superior for personal reasons, whatever they may be, is itself a manifest national security concern,” Dwyer wrote.