The Pentagon’s watchdog says the Department of Defense is in “potential noncompliance” with standards for reviewing and denying religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to a report obtained by Fox News Digital.
According to an internal memo by the Pentagon’s Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin written in June, but circulated on Sept. 2, the IG writes that he reviewed “concerning denials of religious liberty accommodation requests from COVID-19 vaccination requirements.”
O’Donnell stated that the purpose of the report is “To inform [Secretary Austin] of potential noncompliance with standards for reviewing and documenting the denial of religious accommodation request from Service members.”
He said that the DOD hotline received “dozens” of complaints regarding denied religious exemption requests from military service members.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin smiles during the press conference with Minister of Defence of Latvia Artis Pabriks during the press conference in Riga, Latvia, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Roman Koksarov)
“We found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies,” he continued in the report to the secretary of defense.
The memo notes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) as the federal law that prohibits the government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
“The denial memorandums we reviewed generally did not reflect an individualized analysis, demonstrating that the Senior Military Official considered the full range of facts and circumstances relevant to the particular religious accommodation request,” he explained.
The acting IG also noted that the “volume and rate” at which the denial decisions were made “is concerning.”
He detailed that an average of 50 denials were proceeded per day over 90 days which, assuming a 10-hour work day without breaks, would leave a 12-minute review of each service member’s request.
Members of the Special Operations Team of the Cypriot National Guard and U.S. Navy SEALs participate in a joint military training in Limassol, Cyprus, September 10, 2021. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou
Fox News has been told that some requests spanned at least 100 pages and would be impossible to have closely reviewed in such a small window of time.
“Such a review period seems insufficient to process each request in an individualized manner and still perform the duties required of their position,” O’Donnell continues.
The bombshell report comes amid an ongoing lawsuit by First Liberty Institute and Hacker Stephens LLP on behalf of 35 active-duty SEALs and three reservists seeking a religious exemption to the mandate.
U.S. Navy service members who are seeking religious exemptions to the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate have been transferred into deplorable living conditions while awaiting their termination from the military, according to court documents. (Navy Declaration/First Liberty Institute)
First Liberty’s Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs Mike Berry told Fox News Digital in reaction to the report: “The DOD’s own Inspector General says there’s evidence that the Pentagon is breaking the law. This report confirms what tens of thousands of service members have suspected all along; that their religious accommodations were never going to be reviewed fairly and this is just an ideological purge. Our troops deserve so much better.”
The Pentagon did not immediately return Fox News Digital’s request for comment on the report.
The acting IG also mentions a recently announced audit “to determine whether Military Departments are processing exemption requests for the COVID-19 vaccination and taking disciplinary actions for active duty Service members in accordinace with Federal and DoD guidance.”
O’Donnell is also set to review a whistleblower’s allegations that hundreds of Afghan evacuees entered the U.S. despite their appearance on a Pentagon watchlist — and claims that officials did not follow correct procedures.
Kelly Laco is a politics editor for Fox News Digital. Story tips can be sent to [email protected] and on Twitter: @kelly_laco.
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