Marines' claim of granting 2 religious COVID-19 vaccine exemptions leads to more questions

Marines kick out more than 200 troops for refusing to get COVID vaccine

‘Special Report’ panel discusses vaccine mandates, mixed messaging and coronavirus confusion.

EXCLUSIVE: The U.S. Marine Corps has approved its first two religious exemptions to President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but some Marines aren’t considering it a win for religious freedom just yet.

The Marines have received 3,350 requests for religious exemptions to the mandatory vaccine as of Thursday, and 3,212 have been denied. At least 351 Marines have been discharged so far for refusing the vaccine, the Marine Corps said Monday, and hundreds more face the same fate.

The Marine Corps provided no additional information about the two specific approvals, “due to privacy considerations.”

A U.S. Marine receives the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at Camp Foster on April 28, 2021, in Ginowan, Japan.
(Carl Court/Getty Images)

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is demanding more information regarding the two approvals, telling Fox News Digital in an interview that military personnel from all over the country have been reaching out to him expressing concerns about the military’s process for approving, or in most cases denying, religious exemption requests.

The Marine Corps has said it views the vaccine as a “readiness issue.” Spokesperson Capt. Andrew Wood told Fox News Digital on Monday that approximately 88% of Marines who have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 were unvaccinated at the time of their hospitalization. 

But several Marines who spoke with Fox News Digital said they believe they are on the receiving end of a “blanket” denial of religious exemptions to the vaccine, with their applications being rejected without consideration. Eight separate letters of denial provided to Fox News Digital were nearly identical, citing readiness as the primary reason for rejection.

An active-duty officer with a legal background who has extensive knowledge of the internal proceedings in the case involving the two approvals told Fox News Digital that those two Marines were initially denied religious exemptions, had submitted appeals, and were approved only after they had started the leave process. 

One of the Marines, according to the officer, was on terminal leave when the appeal was granted, meaning that member was already in the process of separating from the military.

The other Marine who was granted an appeal, according to the officer, was in the SkillBridge program, which allows members who are within 180 days of release from active duty to locate career opportunities as they transition into civilian life.

U.S. Marines line up to receive the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at Camp Hansen on April 28, 2021, in Kin, Japan.
(Carl Court/Getty Images)

“Granting RAs [religious accommodations] for civilians is basically a moot point,” the officer told Fox News Digital. “They did that as an administrative workaround … to get it to look like they granted two, so that they would alleviate some of the pressure off of themselves.”

“It’s really just deception,” she said. “Even people who are about to retire or about to get out are still being forced to get the vaccine, which is completely nonsensical, because if it’s about health and readiness of the force, how does someone who’s about to be a civilian impact health and readiness of the force?”

The officer said she also knows of at least a “dozen or so” chaplains whose religious accommodation requests have been denied, arguing that the Marine Corps process of granting RAs is arbitrary at best.

“This is a scandal,” added Issa spokesperson Jonathan Wilcox.

Wilcox argued that the Marine Corps either approved the two RAs to give the appearance that religious rights are being respected, have made an error they have yet to correct, or are intentionally misleading the public.

Either way, he said, the public deserves answers.

A Marine Corps gunnery sergeant talks with U.S. Navy medical officers about issues surrounding the coronavirus vaccine, at Camp Foster on April 28, 2021, in Ginowan, Japan.
(Carl Court/Getty Images)

Wood, the Corps spokesperson, told Fox News Digital that the process for evaluating requests for religious exemptions has been done on a case-by-case basis and that each request is “meticulously reviewed.”

“Requests are reviewed and endorsed (as applicable) by the Marine’s lieutenant colonel commander, colonel commander, and commanding general before being forwarded to the adjudication authority – the deputy commandant, Manpower and Reserve Affairs,” Wood said. “Within Manpower and Reserve Affairs, there is a three-person Religious Accommodation board which reviews each package, and makes a recommendation to the deputy commandant. The deputy commandant then personally reviews the content of each package before making a decision. If a request is denied, the submitter has the option to appeal the decision to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.” 

“At every step, each accommodation request is given full consideration with respect to the facts and circumstances submitted in the request,” he said. “In each case, every reviewer weighs the compelling government interest against the individual’s request and the circumstances of their situation.”

Meanwhile, Issa, an Army veteran, is sending a letter to Gen. David H. Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, giving him until Friday to provide detailed information on the two religious accommodation requests that have been approved, so that Marines who are still seeking exemptions can also “fully consider how to include complete details involving their own unique cases.”

“When we hear about the lone two that somehow went from rejected to accepted, we already doubted it, and now we’re being told by whistleblowers that it is fishy and that there is more to it,” he told Fox News Digital. “The wholesale rejection is not acceptable, and now the problem is getting the facts so that we can in fact draft an appropriate prohibition on the activity that’s coming out of the Pentagon.”

“If you ignore it in one place, you may well ignore it in others over time,” he said. “This is something that is not going to be allowed to stand.” 

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