Miss a day, miss a lot. Subscribe to The Defender's Top News of the Day. It's free.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) will pay $1.8 million in attorney’s fees to a Florida law firm that represented thousands of service members who were punished, demoted or discharged after their requests for religious exemptions from the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate were denied.
Liberty Counsel, a religious freedom legal advocacy group, announced the settlement agreement on Wednesday.
The agreement came after two years of litigation in two class action suits — Navy SEAL 1 et al. v. Austin and Colonel Financial Management Officer et al. v. Austin — challenging the military’s refusal to grant religious exemptions.
Liberty Counsel filed the suits and successfully obtained numerous restraining orders and injunctions.
Congress ended the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for U.S. military forces under an $858 billion defense spending bill signed by President Joe Biden on Dec. 23, 2022. The bill gave the military 30 days to work out the details for rescinding the mandate.
The Navy rescinded its COVID-19 vaccine mandate in January 2023, and ordered all Navy commands to “stop any new adverse administrative actions associated with refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Settlement comes after judge declares cases moot
The two lawsuits filed by Liberty Counsel were dismissed in May.
The settlement agreement is unusual in that the judge for the two cases declared them moot, dismissing them in light of the military branches’ rescission of their mandates.
Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman, Mat Staver, told The Defender about a law that allows prevailing parties in court decisions providing injunctive relief, even when no final judgment is made, to file for attorney’s fees and costs.
The DOD and Liberty Counsel entered mediation last week and worked out the details by Friday, he said.
Judges for the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals also ruled a number of other similar cases moot for the same reason.
In a statement on Liberty Counsel’s website announcing the DOD settlement, Staver said:
“The military COVID shot mandate is dead. Our heroic service members can no longer be forced to take this experimental jab that conflicts with their religious convictions. Through our daily work with service members in every branch, we have had the privilege of knowing some of the finest people who love God and love America. These heroes should not have been mistreated by our own government.”
Staver called for accountability at the highest levels:
“At the same time, we have come to realize that many of the high-ranking members of leadership, the Pentagon, and the Biden administration need to be replaced. Collectively, they dishonored the brave men and women who defend our freedom. We stand ready to defend our defenders of freedom if any religious discrimination occurs in the future.”
Staver told The Defender a senior military officer told him, “We have been prepared to fight the enemy, but we were not prepared to say that enemy was our own military.”
The DOD is required to pay Liberty Counsel within 21 days.
Service members suffered ‘abuse, intimidation and retaliation’
Court documents from the two cases revealed “shocking evidence” of “abuse, intimidation and retaliation” of service members. Two service members reportedly committed suicide. Many who refused the vaccine were discharged.
Stavers cited the case of Lieutenant Colonel Peter Chambers, one of only several medical flight surgeons in the world. Chambers spent 39 years in the military, receiving a Purple Heart, before being told he needed to vaccinate.
He was injured by the COVID-19 shot and forced to retire before reaching his 40th year, losing the compensation that would have come with that milestone.
“Instead of honoring him, they overnighted his belongings in a box,” Stavers said.
Staver told The Defender that they are working with attorneys in the military to help service members recoup their losses, but that due to the unique elements of each individual case, the cases did not lend themselves to being combined in a class action lawsuit.
His law firm also is working with members of Congress to pass an act that would provide compensation for these service members, but it’s “stuck in the Democrat-controlled Senate,” he said.
Vaccine mandates hurt military enlistment
Over 1.4 million service members were forced into vaccination, according to Danielle Runyan, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, another organization representing military service members. Many experienced side effects like heart problems.
Only 19,460 servicemembers remain unvaccinated as of October 2022, she told The Center Square in July.
“While many Americans may have largely moved beyond the detrimental impacts of the COVID-19 vaccine mandates, one of our nation’s greatest assets — our military service members — are still suffering the consequences,” she said.
In March 2022, the Biden administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let the DOD enforce its vaccination mandates on a group of unvaccinated Navy Seals after a federal judge upheld a lawsuit by 35 Seals that granted a preliminary injunction on the grounds of religious freedom.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, said during a July hearing that because of the vaccine mandates, “our military recruitment and retention has been negatively affected.”