Oklahoma sues Biden administration over vaccine mandate for state National Guard

Oklahoma sues Biden administration over vaccine mandate for state National Guard

The state of Oklahoma has sued the Biden administration over a Defense Department mandate that its National Guard forces must get the COVID-19 vaccine, calling it an unconstitutional and dangerous overreach by the federal government.

The lawsuit, filed late Thursday, seeks a temporary injunction and a permanent restraining order against the mandate. It also asks the court to block a  threat this week by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to effectively withhold funding and salaries for the Oklahoma National Guard and Guard members in the state.

The suit escalates what was already an extraordinary clash of will between Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Pentagon leadership. Mr. Austin has said getting all active-duty, reserve and Guard personnel protected from COVID-19 is a readiness issue and that unvaccinated Guard members will be barred from the federally-funded training and drills they need to maintain their status in the Guard.

Oklahoma state Attorney General John O’Connor called the Pentagon vaccine mandate “reckless and unlawful,” and warned it could affect public safety as well.

“Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate ensures that many Oklahoma National Guard members will simply quit instead of getting the vaccine, a situation that will irreparably harm Oklahomans’ safety and security,” Mr. O’Connor said in a statement announcing the lawsuit Thursday. “These patriots, along with many federal employees who serve their country and their state, are now at risk of being terminated because they do not wish to take the vaccine.”

The state contends that the governor is the commander-in-chief of the Oklahoma National Guard so long as it is operating within the state and has not been mobilized by the president. State officials also argue that, unlike active-duty personnel, the burden of paying for health care associated with getting the vaccine must be borne by Guard members themselves.

“It is unconscionable that President Biden and his administration are choosing to play politics with military paychecks,” Mr. Stitt said in a statement Thursday, “especially amid the highest inflation rate in 30 years and so close to the holiday season. … I will continue fighting to protect Oklahoma against this alarming pattern of unconstitutional federal overreach coming from the Biden administration.”

Mr. Austin on Monday explicitly rejected Oklahoma’s request for a waiver from the mandate, saying all members of the Oklahoma Air and Army National Guard must get vaccinated “regardless of duty status.”

The Pentagon said Friday it would not comment on ongoing litigation, but released a statement from spokesman John Kirby strongly defending Mr. Austin’s mandate.

“All service members in the Active and Reserve Components are required to comply with the valid medical readiness requirement established by the Secretary of Defense to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” Mr. Kirby said. “We are not aware of any governor attempting to prohibit members from receiving the vaccine, and don’t see this [mandate] as placing any individual member in conflict with state authorities.”

A failure to get vaccinated for COVID, Mr. Kirby added, “may jeopardize an individual member’s status in the National Guard; any impact to a member’s status in their state militia is an issue for state authorities. [State governors] may not relieve individual members of the Guard from their obligation to comply with this valid medical readiness requirement established by the [Defense] Department.”

Governors in several other conservative states are said to be looking at Oklahoma’s fight against the military vaccine mandate, but so far no other state has followed its lead.

The Pentagon’s order said military personnel must get the vaccine or apply for a waiver based on health, religious or other grounds. The latest figures show that nearly 90% of the Oklahoma National Guard‘s airmen were fully vaccinated.

— Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

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