Kobach seeks injunction for U.S. airmen with religious objections to COVID-19 vaccination

Lawsuit involves personnel at McConnell, Kansas National Guard members

By: - May 10, 2022 2:39 pm

Attorney general candidate Kris Kobach represents 36 U.S. military personnel in lawsuit challenging Defense Department’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. He seeks a temporary injunction in U.S. District Court in Omaha on behalf of his clients. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas attorney Kris Kobach sought a temporary injunction in an Omaha federal courtroom on behalf of three dozen U.S. airmen who face discharge or sanction after seeking religious exemptions to the Department of Defense’s mandate that service members be vaccinated for COVID-19.

Kobach, a candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination for attorney general in Kansas, said he was serving as lead counsel on a case involving 11 airmen stationed at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita and 17 airmen at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. In addition, plaintiffs include airmen in the Kansas National Guard and military personnel stationed in Virginia, Texas, Arizona and Mississippi.

“You do not give up your religious freedom when you enter the military,” Kobach said Tuesday in an interview. “Individuals should not be punished for practicing their religious faith.”

Kobach said the U.S. military would be better off in terms of troop retention and religious freedom would be better protected if the mandate was amended to allow for testing and isolation of unvaccinated troops who contracted COVID-19.

The lawsuit was filed in March and briefs submitted prior to a hearing on the proposed preliminary injunction preventing enforcement by the Air Force of the vaccination mandate issued in 2021.

Kobach said the Air Force had approved 46 exemptions to the vaccination order from among more than 7,500 airmen who applied under provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Exemptions went to airmen preparing to retire from military service, he said.

He said 18 of the 36 airmen participating in the lawsuit had their requests for a religious exemption denied.

Defendants in the lawsuit include leadership of the Kansas and Nebraska National Guard organizations, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall. The Defense Department issued a directive in 2021 that all uniformed personnel be vaccinated for COVID-19.

Capt. Ian McGee, an Offutt instructor pilot, testified Monday in U.S. District Court in Omaha that he requested a religious exemption. He said he’d rather leave the military than receive a vaccination developed through research involving fetal tissue.

“It goes against my sincerely held religious beliefs as a born-again Christian,” McGee said. “My resolve is to stay with my relationship with Jesus Christ.”

A separate but comparable case in Texas involving U.S. Navy SEALS resulted in affirmation of a temporary injunction against imposition of the vaccination mandate, but the U.S. Supreme Court order also enabled the Navy to continue making deployment and stationing decisions for plaintiffs.

Kobach said he was serving as general counsel to the Alliance for Free Citizens, an organization started last year and a part of the Nebraska vaccination case. That organization is collaborating on the case with the America First Policy Institute formed by former Trump administration officials.

He said Judge Brian Buescher offered no timeline for deciding the temporary injunction issue, but granted attorneys one more day to file amended briefs in the case.

Other Republican candidates in the Aug. 2 primary election for attorney general in Kansas include state Sen. Kellie Warren and former U.S. prosecutor Tony Mattivi. Chris Mann, a Lawrence attorney, is the Democratic Party’s candidate for attorney general.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.