The Pentagon should respect religious freedom

Common sense would indicate that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s vaccination decree should be rescinded—or at a minimum, that exemptions be approved.

COVID-19 vaccines at a vaccination center in Tzfat on Feb. 14, 2021. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
COVID-19 vaccines at a vaccination center in Tzfat on Feb. 14, 2021. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Juliana Geran Pilon
Juliana Geran Pilon
Juliana Geran Pilon is a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her latest book is An Idea Betrayed: Jews, Liberalism, and the American Left (2023). She has taught at the National Defense University, the Institute of World Politics, American University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and George Washington University.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that decisions regarding abortion rights should be left to individual states has opened a healthy debate about the limits to federal power and constitutional protections for religious freedom, centered on the meaning of life itself. As Ruth Wisse observed in Mosaic on July 13, 2022, this is all good: “We don’t need polling to tell us that most Americans are not dogmatic on whether and when abortion is morally sound: our political debate over where to draw the lines, geographically and otherwise, may indeed be the strongest proof that, even now, Americans are willing to rise up to the civic obligations of democratic self-government.”

Whether or not to abort a child is among the most fundamental decisions any human being is ever likely to have to make, calling into question one’s deepest spiritual beliefs. Similar life and death dilemmas are involved in another matter before us, relating to whether or not to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Some people, for example, object on religious grounds to vaccines developed or tested through the use of abortion-derived cell lines.

But if they work for the military, their jobs may now be in jeopardy. Prior to August 2021, military regulations had allowed an exception for those who had already acquired the disease. Prior infection was grounds for exemption; that is no longer the case. Vaccinate or lose your job, your pension—no matter how long you’ve been on the job. A few months before retirement? Too bad.

This is devastating for many people facing a choice between keeping their jobs and going against their conscience. As Christopher J. Motz, a lawyer in the Air National Guard and a former infantry officer in the Marine Corps,” writes in the July 10 issue of The Wall Street Journal that “[m]ore than 24,000 members across the branches have submitted religious-accommodation requests following Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s August 2021 vaccination order. Almost all have been rejected. These troops now face punishment and discharge.”

Never mind that “uniformed service members are among the lowest-risk adult demographic, and breakthrough infections are so numerous they’re no longer tracked.” The new decree seems almost designed to make it impossible to refuse vaccination. For since it was issued, “requests for alternatives such as telework, masking and regular testing have also been rejected. The military says these once-common measures are ‘unavailable.’ ” The Air Force has approved 1,608 requests (the total has not been disclosed) based on nonreligious reasons, though fewer than 130 of the 9,000 religious requests. This compares favorably with the Marines, who approved a mere seven religious-accommodation requests out of more than 3,700 applications.

It is hard not to agree with Motz that “military regulations guarantee religious freedom, but the Pentagon is defying them.” Among those requesting permission are religious personnel, most of whom are Christians opposed to abortion. But what about Jewish members in the military? The story is rather more complicated. For while many Jews object to abortion, not all do—not even among the Orthodox. As Ruth Wisse points out, “[i]n the Jewish state as in the Jewish tradition, abortion is not forbidden outright, and neither is it a cause for celebration.” It is the sanctity of human life in all its complexity that is central to Judaism, which fully appreciates that each case is different. In Israel, for example, “a hospital committee interviews candidates for abortion and generally interprets leniently in matters governing the mother’s health and welfare. It is assumed that everyone involved in this decision is struggling alike with its moral aspects in a society that is unlikely to undervalue the potential life of a child.” The principle at the heart of Judaism is that every life matters.

The same reasoning applies to vaccination: One must consider each case on its own merits. Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin sets the broader context: “The Torah is teaching us that our body is a gift from G‑d, and we are therefore not the owners of it, and we can’t cause it any damage.” Accordingly, a vaccine that protects health should be welcomed, provided that the risks do not outweigh the benefits. Rabbi Shurpin cites the ruling by the famous 19th-century Rabbi Yisroel Lifpschutz that the risk of death from the smallpox vaccine being negligible (1 in 1,000), one should get vaccinated.

The situation is more complicated for someone who already has considerable immunity to a virus from a previous infection, and who has a reasonable concern about complications from a relatively new and thus not sufficiently validated vaccine. At the very least, people should be allowed to access alternatives such as remote work or regular testing. Even without having to appeal to religious freedom, it would seem not only unreasonable but clearly unconstitutional to reject reasonable arguments against vaccine requirements.

Jews, above all, understand the importance of self-preservation. The final chapter of the Code of Jewish Law emphasizes that “just as there is a positive commandment to build a guardrail around the perimeter of a rooftop lest someone fall, so too are we obligated to guard ourselves from anything that would endanger our lives, as the verse states” (referring to Deuteronomy 4:9). A nation such as the United States, which was founded on the sanctity of individual rights, should especially respect this stance. By no means an expression of hyper-individualism, Jewish regard for community is among the strongest in world history.

It is for this reason that in Jewish law, for example, “the woman who casually aborts a child in a society where every member is responsible for every other may feel she offends not just the unborn child but the woman who is unable to bear a child.” So, too, a member of the U.S. military who is convinced that vaccination may be deleterious to his health does not make that decision lightly, knowing that each of us must take into consideration the interests of society at large. Common sense would indicate that Austin’s decree should be rescinded—or at a minimum, that religious exemptions be approved.

Ruth Wisse, as usual, has it right: “Human control over life and death will always be subject to controversy, and advanced civilizations are those that learn to live with the debate.” Surely, we are still civilized, even if no longer as advanced as we used to be.

Juliana Geran Pilon is a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her latest book is “The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom (2019.)” She has taught at the National Defense University, the Institute of World Politics, American University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and George Washington University.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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