An airman receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Ariz., May 6, 2021.

An airman receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Ariz., May 6, 2021. U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Michael Matkin

Zero Religious Exemptions Granted for COVID Vaccines in Air Force, As Deadline Passes

Nearly 5,000 religious exemptions are still pending approval.

The Air Force missed its initial Nov. 2 deadline to vaccinate all its active-duty airmen, in large part because the service is still sorting through thousands of requests for exemptions, officials said. Most notably, Air Force officials received nearly 5,000 requests for religious exemptions but have granted none of them, according to the service’s COVID-19 statistics dashboard

Service officials have dealt with all of the requests for medical and administrative exemptions, approving 1,634 of the former and 232 of the latter. 

Military chaplains have been charged with determining the “severity of religious conviction” of those airmen who requested religious exemption, Stars and Stripes reported last week. In an attempt to prevent non-religious airmen from claiming religious exemption, the approvals are being made on a case-by-case basis. 

While religious exemptions have long been an option for various Defense Department policies, the archbishop for the military released a statement in mid-October reiterating to Catholic troops specifically that a religious exemption should be within their rights. 

“No one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience,” said Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy P. Broglio, in a statement released Oct. 12.

The Air Force finished near its vaccine goal—as of Tuesday, 95.9 percent of active-duty airmen are fully inoculated and another one percent have received at least one dose. 

Out of the 8,486 airmen who remain unvaccinated, more than half are awaiting approval for religious exemptions. Another 800 have refused the vaccine, and 2,753 more are listed as simply “Not Started.” 

“Our Airmen need to be prepared to operate anytime, anywhere in the world,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown, Jr. said in a statement released with the updated statistics. “Getting vaccinated ensures we are a ready force to meet our commitments to the nation while protecting the health of our team and families.” 

The Air Force was the first service to release comprehensive data on exemptions, refusals, and pending approvals. The branch has allotted 30 business days for religious exemptions to be processed. 

“Appeals are determined by the [Department of the Air Force’s] Surgeon General with inputs from the chaplain and staff judge advocate. Individuals do not have to get immunized as long as their request is in the process of being decided,” according to a statement from the Air Force. 

Those who remain unvaccinated—including airmen who have an approved exemption request or those awaiting approval—must complete weekly COVID-19 screening tests to enter Defense Department facilities.