(RNS) — More than 1,700 religious leaders organized by former President Donald Trump’s faith advisers are urging the U.S. military to grant religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, alleging service members with spiritual objections to the inoculations are being “stripped of their religious liberties.”
But while the effort singled out COVID-19 vaccine mandates first initiated by President Joe Biden, it did not grapple with similar military mandates that predated the ongoing pandemic. It also lacked support from at least one of Trump’s longtime faith advisers — a hint at possible divisions among the former president’s evangelical allies regarding COVID-19.
In a letter sent to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Nov. 15, the group of faith leaders insisted military brass grant exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines before looming deadlines. Active-duty Navy and Marine Corps members must get the shots by Sunday (Nov. 28), while the Army has until Dec. 15. The Air Force deadline already elapsed on Nov. 2.
“We should be rewarding their bravery and the bravery of all our men and women in uniform, by not forcing them to choose between sincere religious convictions and staying in the military,” the letter read in part.
“We urge you to grant religious exemptions as soon as possible for every American risking their lives to defend our country. Religious freedom is enshrined in our Constitution and must always be protected.”
The letter was organized by the National Faith Advisory Board, a group founded in September with the former president’s support and led by Paula White-Cain, a Florida pastor who oversaw the Trump administration’s faith office. In addition to White-Cain, signers of the letter included several evangelical Christian leaders who advised Trump, such as Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, co-founders of Kenneth Copeland Ministries; Pastor Jack Graham, head of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Texas; Pastor Jentezen Franklin of Free Chapel church in Gainesville, Georgia; and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Other prominent signers included Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition; former Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann; and conservative commentator Eric Metaxas, a Trump loyalist who attracted media attention in 2020 after he admitted to punching an anti-Trump protester and emceed a “Jericho March” in Washington protesting the results of the presidential election.
The letter zeroed in on the COVID-19 vaccine but did not mention other long-standing vaccine requirements for members of the military. According to The Washington Post, neither the Army nor the Navy granted any religious exemptions to vaccine requirements over the past seven years — including during Trump’s tenure.
Representatives for the advisory board did not immediately respond to questions about whether they took issue with the military’s previous record of not granting vaccine exemptions on religious grounds.
Most active-duty service members have already been vaccinated against COVID-19, with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force reporting inoculation rates of at least one dose ranging from 94% to 99% (the Air Force’s data includes members of the newly created Space Force).
But holdouts have caused controversy, with critics noting military leaders are largely rejecting religious accommodation requests. For example: As of Nov. 16, the Air Force reported it was processing 4,817 such requests but had yet to grant any.
In addition, large swaths of Reserve units — whose vaccination deadlines range from later this year to into next summer — have yet to get the shots.
Among those siding with faith-fueled refusals is Catholic Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, the head of the Archdiocese for Military Services who also signed on to the board’s letter. Although many U.S. dioceses have refused to issue religious exemptions for Catholics, Broglio published a statement last month in which he insisted that denying religious exemptions to the vaccine would be “morally reprehensible.”
“Even if an individual’s decision seems erroneous or inconsistent to others, conscience does not lose its dignity,” he argued.
Broglio noted some Catholics have raised concerns about vaccine manufacturers’ use of cells believed to have been originally derived from tissue from an aborted fetus in the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, taking COVID-19 vaccines crafted with the use of such cell lines — a common practice throughout the medical industry — was deemed morally acceptable by Vatican officials, and Swiss Guard troops tasked with protecting the Catholic city-state were subjected to a strict vaccine mandate this year.
Notably absent among the signers of the board letter was longtime Trump devotee Robert Jeffress, the firebrand pastor of First Baptist Dallas who has drawn controversy for his incendiary rhetoric and embrace of Christian nationalism.
Despite his close affiliation with Trump and his faith advisers, Jeffress has taken a decidedly different stance on the question of religion and COVID-19 vaccines: He told The Associated Press in September via email that “there is no credible religious argument against the vaccines.”
He added: “Christians who are troubled by the use of a fetal cell line for the testing of the vaccines would also have to abstain from the use of Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Ibuprofen, and other products that used the same cell line if they are sincere in their objection.”
Some religious leaders have challenged vaccine mandates or the COVID-19 vaccines themselves, but faith groups have also been among the most vocal supporters of COVID-19 vaccination. Religious leaders participated in COVID-19 vaccine trials and opened up their sanctuaries to assist with vaccine rollout, and Pope Francis has described getting vaccinated against the novel coronavirus as “an act of love.”