A GOP-led group of House members sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday demanding explanations for what they call, while referencing a leaked memo, a "blanket denial of religious accommodation" to the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
According to Fox News, the 15 House Republicans' letter comes in response to a leaked internal memo that Sean O'Donnell, the Pentagon's acting inspector general, had written to Austin in June, which was later circulated on Sept. 2.
In the memo, he wrote that he reviewed "concerning denials of religious liberty accommodation requests from COVID-19 vaccination requirements."
O'Donnell then added that the report's purpose is "to inform [Secretary Austin] of potential noncompliance with standards for reviewing and documenting the denial of religious accommodation request from Service members."
But in the Republicans' letter, the House members assert that the Pentagon has denied nearly 24,000 service members' requests for religious exemptions to the vaccine.
"As of February 2022," they write, "the Department of the Navy had granted only a single, partial exemption to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate on religious grounds, and as of July 2022 the Department of the U.S. Army had approved just 20 of over 8,000 requests, the Department of the Air Force had approved less than 130 of over 9,000 requests, and the U.S. Marines had only approved seven of over 3,700 requests."
The letter goes on to add that at least 75,000 troops could be discharged due to the vaccine mandate.
The lawmakers also voiced particular concern that most of the Department of Defense's approval of religious exemptions were given to service members already on the verge of retirement, with non-religious exemptions being approved "at a far higher rate than religious exemptions."
"This suggests the DoD is applying different policies toward service members' applications based on their religious beliefs and expected employment status."
"According to the DoD IG's memo," the letter continues, "the religious vaccine exemption 'denial memorandums we reviewed generally did not reflect an individualized analysis.' Instead, 'We found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies.'"
The House members ended their letter by requesting a complete copy of the IG's June memo as well as all records pertaining to religious accommodation requests regarding the COVID-19 mandate.
The members urged Austin to remind all Defense Department employees and officials of their legal obligation to take appropriate steps to preserve all documents, communications, and other records per federal law.
In response to the IG report, a Pentagon spokesperson said that "the department has a Uniform Standards for Mandated Coronavirus Vaccination Working group that meets regularly to ensure the department is doing everything we can to best protect our service members and their families."
The House Republicans' letter was spearheaded by Rep. Darrell Issa of California and Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana.
Other House members who signed the letter include Reps. Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Elise Stefanik of New York, Lance Gooden of Texas, Doug Lamborn of Colorado, Christopher Smith of New Jersey, Diana Harshbarger of Tennessee, Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, Jodey Arrington of Texas, Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin, Clay Higgins of Louisiana and Carlos Gimenez of Florida.
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