OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A federal judge in Oklahoma on Tuesday ruled against the state in its lawsuit challenging the vaccine mandates for members of the Oklahoma National Guard in a dispute that is the first critical test of the military’s authority to require National Guard troops to get the shot.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot denied Oklahoma’s request for a preliminary injunction, saying the claims by Gov. Kevin Stitt, Attorney General John O’Connor and 16 anonymous Oklahoma National Guard members were without merit.
“The vaccine mandate to which the governor objects is the one — in addition to the nine that already apply to all service members — intended to protect service members from the virus which has, in less than two years, killed more Americans than have been killed in action in all of the wars the United States has ever fought," Friot wrote. “The court is required to decide the case on the basis of federal law, not common sense. But, either way, the result would be the same."
Stitt and O’Connor have been outspoken critics of vaccine mandates, even for military members, and have filed numerous lawsuits challenging such federal mandates.
A spokesman for the Oklahoma National Guard declined to comment while litigation is pending.
Spokeswomen for both Stitt and O’Connor say they're still reviewing the judge's decision.
“We filed this lawsuit to support these Oklahomans who object to the president’s vaccine mandate," O'Connor's office said in a statement. “We are disappointed with this decision."
The White House and health officials have credited coronavirus vaccine mandates with driving up vaccination rates and curbing deaths from COVD-19.
Stitt and O'Connor filed the federal lawsuit over the Guard vaccine requirement earlier this month, with Stitt saying in a statement that Biden's Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin overstepped his constitutional authority by subjecting the National Guard to the mandate.
About a week later, the adjutant general of the Oklahoma National Guard, Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, warned in an open letter to Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard members that refusing to receive the coronavirus vaccine could end their military careers.
Prior to filing a lawsuit, Stitt had asked Austin to suspend the mandate for the Oklahoma National Guard and directed his new adjutant general to assure members that they would not be punished for not being vaccinated.
Pentagon officials have repeatedly said Austin has the authority to set medical readiness requirements, including vaccines, for the entire military including the Guard.
Austin has said that getting the vaccine is critical to maintaining a heathy, ready force that can be prepared to defend the nation. He decided that Guard members who refuse COVID-19 vaccinations will be barred from federally funded drills and training required to maintain their Guard status.
In Judge Friot's order, he said state officials indicated that 89% of the airmen in the Guard have been vaccinated, while only 40% of Army guardsmen have been vaccinated. The deadline for Air National Guard members to be fully vaccinated was Dec. 2, while Army National Guard members have until June 30 to become fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Stitt, who was the nation’s first governor to confirm that he got COVID-19, said he doesn’t plan to get a booster shot even though state health officials are encouraging vaccinated people to do just that, particularly as the highly contagious omicron variant spreads.
Sean Murphy, The Associated Press