WASHINGTON (The Hill) — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled against an Air Force reserve officer who asked the justices to shield him from disciplinary action over his religious-based refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Lt. Col. Jonathan Dunn was removed from his command and faces additional punishment over his refusal to comply with the military-wide health policy that was implemented last August.
The court’s three most conservative members—Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch—indicated they would have granted Dunn’s request to block the Pentagon from disciplining him further while the case proceeds in the lower courts.
The court’s move on Monday came in a brief unsigned order that was issued without comment. It follows a ruling last month when the justices restored the Defense Department’s authority over the deployment of unvaccinated Navy special forces operators after a lower court sided with a group of Navy SEALs who challenged the military’s mandate.
Dunn’s unusual legal argument stood out among the numerous other religious-based challenges that have been filed against vaccination mandates since the emergence of COVID-19 two years ago. In court papers, he argued that government leaders have painted the vaccine as a moral obligation and thereby caused it to take on a “sacramental quality” that violated his religious conviction.
“That makes COVID-19 vaccination a religious ritual required as a condition of participating fully in civil society—like ancient Roman laws requiring sacrifices to Caesar, or Nebuchadnezzar’s edict requiring worship of the golden statue,” his lawyers told the justices. “After much prayer, applicant concluded that he cannot participate in such a religious ritual—and thus cannot take the vaccine—because, as a Christian, he must render worship to God only.”
The Defense Department last week urged the justices to deny the request, emphasizing the need for military readiness while arguing that Dunn had failed to demonstrate that he would suffer irreversible harm if his bid were denied. “Applicant also failed to establish any irreparable harm,” the Justice Department wrote in court papers on the Pentagon’s behalf. “He has already been removed from his former command—including for reasons of poor judgment and abuse of authority, which justified the removal independent of his refusal to be vaccinated.”