- Coast Guard documents obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation appear to show canned justifications commanders can cut and paste into vaccine exemption requests, experts told the DCNF.
- Existence of the statements suggests the Coast Guard may have violated requirements to consider the unique circumstances surrounding each request, experts said.
- “It is very easy for a commander to have a closed mind when there is a pre-written language presented to them in draft form,” Dwight Stirling, former military attorney and founder of the Center for Law and Military Policy, explained to the DCNF.
The Coast Guard had pre-written justifications for denying COVID-19 vaccine exemption requests, according to documents obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Justifications in the document differ according to the position each Coast Guard member requesting an exemption occupied and where he or she was stationed, but each of the 30 listed follows a similar pattern of highlighting the operational requirements for each position and explaining why vaccination is necessary. The DCNF could not determine exactly how those in charge of deciding exemption cases applied each justification to individual requests, but the document indicates they failed to consider the unique circumstances of each applicant, a violation of Coast Guard policy and U.S. law, experts told the DCNF.
“All the commander needs to do is sign the memo and the matter is finished,” Dwight Stirling, former military attorney and founder of the Center for Law and Military Policy, explained to the DCNF. (RELATED: Court Decides Air Force ‘Wrongly’ Dismisses Religious Exemption Requests From Unvaxxed Airmen)
Coast Guard policy aimed at protecting First Amendment rights requires leaders to individually review each vaccine exemption request, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act says armed forces must demonstrate a “compelling interest” in overruling religious accommodations.
Mike Rose, general counsel for Stand Together Against Racism and Radicalism in the Services, said he could not confirm whether the document was used to help the Coast Guard violate policy. However, he agreed that it appears to contain pre-written statements “designed to be applied automatically to each individual Coast Guardsmen based on the nature of their assignment.”
“I also considered that you are assigned to an operational billet,” reads one of the justifications, directed at a cook aboard CGC Angela McShan. “Your duties as the senior Culinary Specialist requires frequent interactions with the entire crew in smaller, enclosed spaces that do not afford the opportunity to consistently social distance in accordance with the Center for Disease Control’s recommended guidelines.”
The document contains a separate section labeled “COVID-19 and Other Requests” with responses to multiple religious exemptions related to the COVID-19 vaccine listed below.
The first response addresses Coast Guard members’ request to be exempt from all future vaccines developed from mRNA or viral vector technology, which are used in the top COVID-19 vaccines.
“The Coast Guard cannot predict which vaccines in the future will be mandated and of those which will be developed with mRNA or viral vector technology. Therefore, because of the broad nature of your request, it is denied,” the document reads, with “it is denied” in boldface type.
The document also contains language for commanders denying religious exemptions to any COVID-19 vaccine: “I am the adjudication authority for religious accommodation requests pursuant to reference (d),” it reads.
“I have carefully reviewed your request in accordance with references (d)-(f). Your request is denied,” it concludes, also with the final sentence in boldface.
The document does not contain any language that would seem to approve an exemption request.
Of 1,350 religious accommodation requests received since the mandate came into effect in August 2021, the Coast Guard approved 12, along with eight permanent medical exemptions, a Coast Guard spokesperson told the DCNF.
“Giving commanders suggested reasons to consider that might justify denying an exemption from the vaccine in an individual case might not be wrong and could be justifiable legal advice,” Rose told the DCNF. “What would be wrong and impermissible would be to deny an exemption without regard to the individual circumstances and to use the pre canned statements to justify those denials.”
Military lawyers often cut and paste from memos or briefs, Stirling explained.
“While we don’t know whether the Coast Guard commanders pre-judged the exemption cases before them, it would not be shocking to learn that they did so,” he said. “From my experience, it is very easy for a commander to have a closed mind when there is a pre-written language presented to them in draft form.”
House Oversight Committee Republicans confirmed the document’s authenticity, saying they had obtained a similar document, but did not respond to further questioning about its contents. The document’s metadata says it was created in August 2022.
🚨@RepJamesComer, @Rep_Clyde & Oversight Republicans probe @USCG‘s failure to provide due process to members requesting religious exemptions to the COVID vaccine mandate.
They denied nearly every applicant seeking an exemption.
We need answers. https://t.co/3lbk9jVa6E
— Oversight Committee (@GOPoversight) October 18, 2022
The Coast Guard fell under scrutiny after an investigation by members of the Oversight Republicans found that the Coast Guard used a computer-based tool, consisting of drop-down menus with premade answers for sections of the appeal response form, to issue mass denials of religious accommodations, Fox News first reported.
However, lawmakers alleged that the Coast Guard deliberately stood up the exemption request review system “to reach predetermined conclusions with the goal of rejecting applications” in a letter to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan.
“Every request received individualized review and analysis in accordance with law and Coast Guard policy,” a Coast Guard spokesperson told the DCNF.
The Department of Defense (DOD) officially nullified the military vaccine mandate Tuesday; while the Coast Guard operates under the Department of Homeland Security, it has followed DOD guidance related to COVID-19.
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