Robins Air Force Base officer sued over vaccine rule. What happens now with mandate dropped?

Katie Tucker/The Telegraph

A lawsuit filed by an anonymous officer working at Robins Air Force Base, who requested to be exempted from the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, will go before a judge again after the federal government requested to have its own appeal denied.

The lawsuit was filed in 2022 by an anonymous Air Force officer working in Warner Robins who contended that getting the COVID-19 vaccine violated her Christian beliefs, the lawsuit states. She sued Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III and Air Force Surgeon General Robert Miller in this matter.

She asked a federal judge in Middle Georgia to issue an injunction, stopping the Air Force from forcing her to take the vaccine. The judge agreed. The federal government appealed the injunction but asked the case to be held while other courts dealt with similar issues.

Last year, the U.S. withdrew its vaccine requirement, and that’s part of why the government asked the court to deny its own appeal. The 11th District Court of Appeals accepted the government’s request, denied the appeal and vacated the injunction that a district judge had issued.

Around the same time the lawsuit in Macon was originally filed, 17 Air Force officers in Ohio filed a similar class-action lawsuit claiming the mandate was unconstitutional and requesting the courts to stop the mandate. When the U.S. withdrew the requirement, the Air Force requested to dismiss the case. A federal judge in Ohio granted it.

However, the courts in Ohio are now deciding on whether or not the Air Force officers should get $1.9 million in attorneys’ fees.

The Air Force officer in Warner Robins allegedly was going to be forced to retire if she refused the vaccine, according to court documents.

The Court of Appeals’ decision sent the case back to a federal district court in Middle Georgia. Judge Tilman Self III, who oversaw the case in 2022, has reopened the case.

Why Robins Air Force officer wanted vaccine exemption

The officer said they should be exempted from the vaccine mandate under a religious condition, but they also asserted they had natural immunity because they contracted COVID in December 2020 and fully recovered, according to their lawsuit. They also tested positive for antibodies. She was repeatedly denied on requests to be exempt from the mandate.

After she was given a “final denial” of her religious exemptions, she was given five days to either take the vaccine, submit a retirement request if she were eligible, or refuse the vaccine in writing. She submitted a retirement request “under protest,” adding that forcing her to choose between her beliefs and her livelihood lowers her morale and that of other service members, she argued in her lawsuit.

“Fidelity to her religious beliefs is more important to Plaintiff than her career and compensation, but the Constitution prohibits Defendants from forcing her to choose between her beliefs and her employment,” she said in her lawsuit.

The lawsuit argued that denying her the accommodation violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even by means of a rule of general applicability.” It also violates their First Amendment right of free exercise and the Administrative Procedure Act that grants the court to hold or set aside any agency action that is considered an “abuse of discretion,” the lawsuit contends.

When Self granted an injunction to prevent enforcement of the vaccine mandate, he wrote, “religious-based refusal to take a COVID-19 vaccine simply isn’t going to halt a nearly fully vaccinated Air Force’s mission to provide a ready national defense.”

“What real interest can our military leaders have in furthering a requirement that violates the very document they swore to support and defend? The Court is unquestionably confident that the Air Force will remain healthy enough to carry out its critical national defense mission even if Plaintiff remains unvaccinated and is not forced to retire,” continued Self.

The Secretary of Defense and the Air Force initially responded to the complaint attempting to dismiss the charges, claiming that the argument from the officer was “not ripe for judicial review,” but their request was never granted.