A federal judge in Ohio on Monday issued an injunction temporarily banning the Air Force from punishing a Reservist who refuses to take a coronavirus vaccine, another victory for troops fighting the Pentagon’s inoculation mandate in court.
Second Lt. Michael Poffenbarger, who joined the Air Force Reserve last fall and is assigned to become an intelligence officer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, opposes the vaccines because of their remote links to abortion, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Ohio.
The airman sought a religious waiver but was denied on public health grounds. Because he is still unvaccinated, he’s barred from starting intelligence technical school. He’ll also need to access classified material as an intel officer, putting him in close quarters with others in small, secure facilities.
Poffenbarger argued punishment for remaining unvaccinated violates his rights under the First Amendment and the broader Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“He does not object to taking vaccines as a general matter,” Judge Thomas Rose wrote in the injunction order. “He received other vaccines required by the military because, to his knowledge, they do not suffer from this same issue; and he would be willing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if one is manufactured that does not suffer from this same issue.”
The cells used to create or test vaccines are replicated from decades-old fetuses and do not require new abortions. For example, Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA-based vaccines used cells replicated from a fetus aborted in the 1970s to make sure their vaccine worked in human cells. The fetal cells were not used to produce either vaccine, National Geographic reported last fall. Johnson & Johnson uses cells replicated from a fetus aborted in 1985 to produce its vaccine, but those cells are filtered out from the final product.
Everyone who joins the military must receive a slate of several vaccines to enter, including chickenpox, rubella and hepatitis A. Each of those shots also involve cell tissue derived from fetuses, as does one version of the rabies vaccine. Rabies shots are required only for some service members in certain career fields.
Rose granted Poffenbarger a partial reprieve, saying the military cannot involuntarily move him to the Individual Ready Reserve or issue other repercussions like taking away his health care benefits. But, the judge added, the Air Force Reserve does not need to revoke the reprimand Poffenbarger received on Jan. 10, reinstate his pay or points toward retirement, or let him work at Wright-Patterson.
A federal district court judge in Georgia for the first time barred the Air Force from enforcing its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for a service member earlier in February. Rose echoed the preliminary injunction ruling in that case, saying a Reservist who would work “approximately one weekend a month for the Air Force if not deployed” wouldn’t pose a large threat to a mostly vaccinated force.
The injunction lasts until either party agrees to settle the case or the court reaches a final decision at trial.
About 96% of 501,000 airmen and guardians in the active duty Air Force and Space Force, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve were fully vaccinated as of Feb. 21. That leaves nearly 20,000 service members more vulnerable to COVID-19.
As of Feb. 21, the Air Force said it had approved 13 religious exemption requests and more than 3,000 medical and administrative exemptions. It had booted 175 unvaccinated active duty airmen as of the same date.
Nearly 4,000 troops in the Department of the Air Force are awaiting a decision on their religious accommodation requests.
People who are fully vaccinated are drastically less likely to contract, become severely ill or die from the coronavirus compared to unvaccinated Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 78 million Americans have been infected by the coronavirus, and over 945,000 have died since the pandemic began in late 2019.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.