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Here's What 'Undeployable' Destroyer's Commander Was Doing When the Navy Declared Him Unfit to Helm a Warship

  Because the Ukraine conflict has taken up so much of the national discussion, there have been plenty of smaller stories with larger implic...

 Because the Ukraine conflict has taken up so much of the national discussion, there have been plenty of smaller stories with larger implications that have slipped through the cracks. One of them involves an unnamed Navy destroyer captain, a federal judge and the left’s low-key conniption over them both.

This headline/subheadline combo from Slate last week effectively explains almost all you need to know about the liberal take on this case: “To Protect ‘Religious Freedom,’ a Judge Still Won’t Let the Navy Deploy a Warship: At a Thursday hearing, Judge Steven Merryday showed no regrets about prohibiting the Navy from reassigning an anti-vaxxer.”

Here’s the situation in a nutshell: The Navy ruled that a guided-missile destroyer based in Norfolk, Virginia, can’t be deployed until its commanding officer, who is unnamed in court papers, is reassigned. That’s being held up because the commanding officer filed suit against the reason he was declared unfit to command and needed to be reassigned: His religious exemption from the military’s COVID vaccine mandate was denied. 

A federal judge — U.S. District Judge Steven Douglas Merryday — has ruled the reassignment is a violation of religious freedom.

This was shocking to Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern and others who have reported on the story. Never mind that other judges have ruled the military’s religious exemption rule from the COVID-19 vaccine presents a near-impossible hurdle for servicemembers. 

“The Navy has not accommodated any religious request to abstain from any vaccination in seven years, and to date it has denied all religiously based claims for exemption from COVID-19 vaccination,” a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals noted in February when it unanimously ruled against the service in a similar case involving Navy SEALs.

The evidence, that ruling noted, “suggests that the Navy has effectively stacked the deck against even those exemptions supported by Plaintiffs’ immediate commanding officers and military chaplains.” 

The Biden administration has appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

So, the ship in the Norfolk case can’t be deployed because its commanding officer is supposedly unfit for command and undeployable. Where was he when he found out about this, pray tell?

He was “out at sea,” of course, with the same ship that Mark Joseph Stern and the rest of the people flipping out about this “anti-vaxxer” say they so desperately want deployed.

Here’s a back-and-forth between the commander and one of his lawyers, Roger K. Gannam, from the March 10 evidentiary hearing Slate wrote about, where the commander testified about the letter he received from the Navy regarding his reassignment:

Gannam: “I also want to refer to page 16 of the same document, Document 118, about halfway down it reads, ‘By forcing the Navy to keep in place a commander of a destroyer who has lost the trust of his superior officers and the Navy at large, this Order effectively places a multi-billion dollar guided missile destroyer out of commission.’ 

“Do you remember reading that statement in the motion?”

Commander: “Yes, sir, I do.” 

Gannam: “On February 28th, when the defendants filed this motion stating that your destroyer was indefinitely sidelined and effectively out of commission, where were you?”

Commander: “I was out at sea.” 

Gannam: “How were you out at sea, Commander?”

Commander: “I was commanding my warship on a two-week underway period conducting training exercises.”

Oh. Well then.

I doubt it surprises anyone that this case has nothing to do with the commander’s vaccination status affecting the deployability of his ship and everything to do with the military under President Joe Biden’s administration, where troops are expected to fall in line behind left-wing talking points that have nothing to do with military readiness or discipline. 

In January and February, when omicron cases were peaking in the United States, this “anti-vaxxer” still had the “trust of his superior officers,” to quote Slate’s characterization of the man and the letter he was sent, respectively. On Feb. 28, when the rolling average of daily COVID cases was less than one-tenth of what they were when cases peaked on Jan. 14 (according to data from The New York Times), he couldn’t be trusted.

And now, the Mark Joseph Sterns of the world are throwing a fit that a ship this commander could take to sea in January and February can’t be deployed, despite the fact it was safely out at sea with this guy at the helm. The Sterns are again fine with the fact the armed forces clearly don’t take religious vaccination exemptions seriously, and they stomp their feet like little children when the judiciary doesn’t back them up. It’s as if they want us to know this has nothing to do with health risk and everything to do with power.

They may be fine with that, but we shouldn’t be. There’s a bigger issue at play here than just insisting our troops follow a command, given that command may violate the religious consciences of many in the service. It doesn’t matter how you feel about the efficacy of COVID vaccines. If the military continues to use a rigged process to pressure individuals to violate their faith, it’s difficult to see where the incursions on servicemembers’ freedoms will end.

“I’m here today because the military is not executing this policy while respecting the constitutional freedoms laid out in the First Amendment or [Religious Freedom Restoration Act],” the commander said in his testimony. “I should not be the one standing here to say that today; generals and admirals, the executives in our service, should be here to say that to the [politicians], to the bureaucracy, to their decision-making.” 

No, this commander’s struggle with military bureaucracy may not have the stakes the Russian invasion of Ukraine does. That said, there are wider implications for our constitutional freedoms playing out in Judge Merryday’s courtroom.

If we allow Mark Joseph Stern and his ilk to control the narrative surrounding the case, there’s a lot more to lose than just a few weeks’ worth of deployment for a single destroyer.

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