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Hawley probes Pentagon over ‘alarming’ mishandling of religious exemptions to the COVID vaccine

EXCLUSIVE: Sen. Josh Hawley is demanding the Pentagon provide information related to its internal investigation into the handling of service members’ religious accommodation requests to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Hawley, R-Mo., who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to the Pentagon’s Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell Thursday requesting more information about the Pentagon’s internal report.

The senator’s letter comes a week after the Pentagon’s watchdog said the Department of Defense is in “potential noncompliance” with standards for reviewing and denying religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to a report obtained by Fox News Digital last week.

PENTAGON IN ‘POTENTIAL NONCOMPLIANCE’ WITH LAW AFTER DENYING VACCINE RELIGIOUS ACCOMMODATION REQUESTS: IG

“These findings are alarming. If true, not only do they suggest that the military services failed to satisfy all legal and regulatory obligations when reviewing servicemembers’ requests for religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate,” writes Hawley.

“They also raise very serious concerns about the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s apparent failure to promulgate or enforce lawful guidance for reviewing such requests. This is not to mention concerns about Department leaders’ apparent attempt to conceal these failures. Indeed, it is not lost on me that you reportedly sent this memo on June 2, yet Congress is only now learning of it,” Hawley continued in his letter.

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According to the internal memo by O’Donnell to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin written in June and circulated on Sept. 2, O’Donnell saw “concerning denials of religious liberty accommodation requests from COVID-19 vaccination requirements.”

O’Donnell stated that the purpose of his report is “To inform [Secretary Austin] of potential noncompliance with standards for reviewing and documenting the denial of religious accommodation request from Service members.”

He said the DOD hotline received “dozens” of complaints regarding denied religious exemption requests from military service members.

“We found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies,” he said in his report to the secretary of defense.

The memo noted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) as the federal law that prohibits the government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

“The denial memorandums we reviewed generally did not reflect an individualized analysis, demonstrating that the Senior Military Official considered the full range of facts and circumstances relevant to the particular religious accommodation request,” he explained.

Hawley concluded in his letter: “The Department’s apparent failure to honor that compact is a betrayal of those servicemembers’ trust. It also endangers our nation’s defense by forcing servicemembers and those considering joining the military to question whether this is really an institution to which they are comfortable dedicating their lives. This implication is particularly concerning now as the U.S. military struggles to meet recruiting goals.”

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment on the letter.

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