More than 1,200 service members of the United States Coast Guard are being denied their fundamental religious rights over an “oppressive and unconstitutional” vaccine mandate. On September 16, 2022, Thomas More Society attorneys filed a new class action lawsuit in federal court, challenging the Coast Guard’s across-the-board denial of requests for religious exemptions from the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The lawsuit also seeks a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the imminent dismissal of these religiously conscientious service members, which will occur as soon as next month. The lawsuit, Stone et al. v. Mayorkas et al., explains that the Coast Guard’s refusal to give actual individualized consideration to service members’ requests for religious accommodation directly violates the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The plaintiffs include Lieutenant Junior Grade Stone, the Coast Guard Academy’s 2020 Distinguished Honor Graduate (the top graduate in his class) whose supervising officer recently declared him to be an “Exemplary Officer [who] embodies critical leadership skills” and lauded his “commitment to core values,” and gave him the “highest recommendation” for future at-sea tours—even though his religious accommodation request had already been finally denied. Plaintiffs also include Non-Commissioned Officer Eric Jackson, an 18-year Coast Guard service member who was awarded this year for his exemplary service, and whose commander officially stated that his religious accommodation request posed “no hindrance to operations” or “mission readiness”; and also Lieutenant Junior Grade Michael Marcenelle, who on the same day he was reprimanded for his religious refusal to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, also received the Coast Guard Achievement Medal for his superior performance the past three years, including during the pandemic.
“These exemplary Coast Guard officers are being rewarded for their documented stellar service by dismissal. That is both immoral and illegal. This lawsuit seeks to stop the government’s religious discrimination against these, and all members of the Coast Guard, and to prevent their discharge from the military, which has been initiated solely because they are as loyal to their faith as they have been to this nation,” explained Thomas More Society Senior Counsel Stephen Crampton.
The lawsuit describes how the government and military have abused the rights of the named Coast Guard officers and the others in their class by violating both the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Additionally, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, defendants denied these military personnel the opportunity to seek exemption based on natural immunity and issued the purported final denials to their religious exemption requests via someone without the authority to issue those denials.
Plaintiff Alaric Stone commented on the reason for this lawsuit: “My faith called me to serve my country in the Coast Guard,” said Stone, whose great-great uncle Elmer Stone was the first Aviator in Coast Guard in history, and whose father also served as a Coast Guard Lieutenant. “Now I find myself in a situation where I am being forced to choose between my faith and service to my country; it’s truly heartbreaking. I took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, and religious freedom is a cornerstone of our Constitutional guarantees. There are more than a thousand other Coast Guard men and women who have religious objections to these vaccines and find themselves in a similar position. Our first President and Commander and Chief, George Washington, said it best when he wrote ‘When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen.’”
Stone, Jackson, and Marcenelle are each facing involuntarily discharge because they – and the other Coast Guard members in the class – sincerely believe that receiving one of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines would violate their religious conscience and would be contrary to their faith, because all of the available COVID-19 vaccines were developed with or tested on aborted fetal cell lines. The military has not disputed the sincerity of the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs. Yet it nevertheless seeks to imminently purge them.
Stone, Jackson, and Marcenelle, have each been singled out for their exemplary, service, yet each has been almost simultaneously reprimanded and promised an involuntary discharge for refusing to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, which violates their religious beliefs and is required under an illegal mandate.
“These blatant violations of these Coast Guard officers’ rights are over an oppressive and unconstitutional vaccination mandate,” declared Crampton. “The Coast Guard has categorically refused to consider any religious accommodations for these American heroes, while at the same time allowing secular exemptions.”
“The Coast Guard has made threats, and carried out threats, to punish service members who apply for religious accommodations to the vaccine mandate. The service has denied them schooling, promotion, and assignments. These military personnel have been formally reprimanded and threatened with involuntary discharge,” Crampton added.
“The Coast Guard has also ignored the latest Centers for Disease Control prevention guidelines, which recommend no longer differentiating based on a person’s vaccination status. At the same time, it is forcing these brave and principled service members out, the Coast Guard admits it faces an urgent shortfall in personnel and recruiting. The actions of both the government and the Coast Guard in this situation are ridiculous as well as illogical.”
The United States Supreme Court recently declared that denying a religious accommodation because of “speculation” and “conjecture” about hypothetical future harms—which is the Coast Guard’s basis for forcing these plaintiffs and putative class members out of the military—is a brazen violation of Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment.
Earlier this year, Thomas More Society attorneys obtained the first-in-the-nation injunction against the Air Force on behalf of an individual officer and helped bring about a class-wide injunction against the Air Force in another case, and challenges to the vaccine mandates in the Navy and Marines have already elicited court orders protecting all religious service members.
The class action filing names Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of the Department of Defense Lloyd Austin, Commandant of the Coast Guard Linda Fagan, and Assistant Commandant for Human Resources Coast Guard, Brian Penoyer as defendants.
Crampton is joined in the case by Thomas More Society Special Counsel Adam Hochschild, Mary Catherine Hodes, Paul Jonna, and Nathan Loyd, Thomas More Society Counsel Michael McHale, and Charles Fillmore and Dustin Fillmore, of the Fillmore Law Firm, L.L.P.
Read the Complaint – Class Action filed on September 16, 2022, by Thomas More Society attorneys on behalf of Coast Guard personnel Alaric Stone, Eric Jackson, and Michael Marcenelle, in Stone et al. v. Mayorkas, et al. in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, in Fort Worth, here.