Battle lines drawn in vaccine fight as military class-action lawsuit contests federal mandate in Florida court

Coronavirus

Four of the plaintiffs are residents of, or based out of, Florida.

FILE – In this Jan. 21, 2021, file photo, a medical staff member prepares the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Tudor Ranch in Mecca, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Twenty-three federal employees, a mix of military personnel, defense contractors and civilian contractors and technicians, are challenging the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate in a federal lawsuit filed locally. Four of the plaintiffs are residents of, or based out of, Florida.

The plaintiffs, a mixture of service members from the United States Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Army, National Guard and contractors for the Dept. of Defense and Dept. of Energy are suing to block the federal vaccine mandates on behalf of “themselves and all others similarly situated,” according to court documents filed on Friday, Oct. 15.

They are represented by the Liberty Counsel.

The lawsuit names U.S. President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas as defendants in the case.

The case was filed as a class-action lawsuit, according to court records.

The plaintiffs are bringing the lawsuit as the deadlines for the various military branches to be vaccinated approach. 

  • Air Force Active Duty Airmen: Vaccinated by Nov. 2, 2021
  • Coast Guard Servicemembers: Vaccinated by Nov. 22, 2021
  • Civilian Federal Employees and Contractors: Vaccinated by Nov. 22, 2021
  • Navy Active Duty Sailors and Marines: Vaccinated by Nov. 28, 2021
  • Reserve Airmen and Air National Guard: Vaccinated by Dec. 2, 2021
  • Army Active Duty Units: Vaccinated by Dec. 15, 2021
  • Navy Reservists: Vaccinated by Dec. 28, 2021
  • Reserve and National Guard Units: Vaccinated by June 30, 2022

The plaintiff’s court filing refers to the dates as “terminal,” and say they expect “discipline will be unquestionably imposed” for lack of vaccination. The filing notes “the effective due date for the one-dose Johnson and Johnson shot” is earlier, and the effective due date for both the Pfizer and Moderna are “earlier still” for first doses.

The document says missing earlier due dates will result in disciplinary action and that “pressure and abuse are intense.”

As a result, the 23 plaintiffs filing the lawsuit are seeking relief in court to “prevent these military heroes, federal employees, and federal contractors from facing punishments including dishonorable discharge, court martial, other life-altering disciplinary procedures, and termination.”

Court records indicate all plaintiffs are voluntary service members or civilian contractors. 

The lawsuit argues that those in military service should not have to choose between dishonorable discharge or “sinning against God” by “violating their sincere religious beliefs” through forced vaccination.

The plaintiffs assert that the U.S. Supreme Court has “long affirmed” that servicemembers do not give up their constitutional rights when they take their oaths to serve their country. 

They also contend the court must “protect the rights of these military heroes and remove from the Republic the stain of government coercion of conscience.”

Additionally, while citing previous court rulings, the plaintiffs argue that members of the armed forces may not have their individual freedoms sacrificed to military interests, to the point that their rights are ended.

There are more than 100 years of historical federal and state court precedents that may complicate their arguments against general vaccination requirements in federal court, as well as previous cases involving military vaccine requirements.

Current federal law already requires military members to be vaccinated. The DOD administers 17 vaccines to servicemembers and has since 1995’s Joint Instruction on Immunizations and Chemoprophylaxis. Subsequent updates, effective as of November 7, 2013, have maintained this requirement.

Among the vaccinations required by the military, shots are required for:

  • Anthrax
  • Diphtheria
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Influenza
  • Japanese encephalitis
  • Measles
  • Meningococcal groups A, C, Y and W-135
  • Mumps
  • Pneumococcal infections
  • Poliovirus types I, II, and III
  • Rabies
  • Rubella
  • Smallpox
  • Tetanus
  • Typhoid fever
  • Varicella
  • Yellow fever

A White House spokesperson referred questions about the lawsuit to the DOD. In response to 8 On Your Side’s questions, a DOD spokesperson said the department does not comment on legal matters.

Responding to questions from WFLA, the Liberty Counsel forwarded a link to a press release on their website, detailing a variety of the lawsuit’s arguments against requiring vaccinations for COVID-19 for federal employees and servicemembers.

Included in those points was a claim that none of the COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States were approved beyond emergency use authorization, and therefore military personnel could not be compelled to take them.

The release mentions an Aug. 24, 2021 memo from Sec. of Defense Austin, which stated in part Mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 will only use COVID-19 vaccines that receive full licensure from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in accordance with FDA-approved labeling and guidance.”

The Liberty Counsel’s release says “However, there is currently NO FDA-approved COVID-19 shots available anywhere in the United States. Every COVID shot in America remains under authorization of emergency use, which means people have the ‘option to accept or refuse’ them.”

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was fully approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration on August 23.

The Liberty Counsel published this news release on Oct. 15.

The press release from Liberty Counsel also contains some anecdotal testimony from the plaintiffs they represent, alleging that one plaintiff had witnessed “tremendous amounts of coercion, bullying, censorship, and intimidation being brought forth by the command to bear against the personnel who expressed objections of any kind to the COVID shot mandates, including religious objections.”

No matter which way the case goes in the first round of court, the process is likely to face additional appeals regardless of the outcome, as multiple other vaccine-related lawsuits make their way through U.S. courts. 

Having filed the case in U.S. Middle District Court of Florida, the disposition of the case may go either way before potentially entering another courtroom.

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