No Pseudonymity in Challenge to Denial of Religious Exemption from Military Vaccine Mandate

Beryl Howell, Chief Judge (D.D.C. In Austin v. Officer of the U.S. Space Force, decided yesterday (contrary to decisions in M.D. Fla., N.D. Ill. and D. Colo., but consistently with Chief Judge Howell’s decision in another case, and with this nonprecedential Seventh Circuit order):

Plaintiff, who is currently an “officer in the United States Space Force,” “leads over 200 member in 24 hour operations at a $225+ million satellite station.” As “a devout Catholic,” plaintiff alleges that she “cannot comply with Defendants’ vaccine mandate without violating her sincerely held religious beliefs” ….

Plaintiff asserts that pseudonymity can be justified since her “request to a religious exemption form the vaccine mandate necessary involves revealing her deeply-held religious beliefs and her un-vaccinated state, personal health, all matters utmost intimate, and her requests for a religious exemption.” Further, she explains that in order to obtain a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate, Plaintiff had to write out details about her religious beliefs. This is something she wouldn’t normally discuss publicly.

While plaintiff’s claims necessitate that she explain the source of her opposition to defendants’ vaccine mandate—thereby acknowledging publicly her Catholic faith—there is no reason to believe that the litigation would require her to elaborate on those “deeply held religious beliefs,” and indeed, plaintiffs regularly brings suits in their own names to protect their religious beliefs under RFRA. Wilson v. James, for example. (D.D.C. 2015. (D.D.C. Boardley v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior (D.C. Cir. 2010 (RFRA challenge of constitutionality to National Park Service regulations applied to plaintiff). The plaintiff’s claim that she has “personal intimate” information about her religious beliefs does not provide sufficient ground for the “rare dispensation to anonymity.” …

Doe v. StegallThe Fifth Circuit case she refers to is distinct because the plaintiffs were children, which the court considered “especially persuasive.” Additionally, the record included “documentary evidences” that supported plaintiffs’ assertions that they could be subjected “to retaliatory harassment and violence if their identities are publicly disclosed”. Even if some information regarding the details of pLaintiff’s “personal health” were sensitive and highly personal, this would at most warrant limited sealing of that information….

[P]laintiff [also]Without further explanation, she asserts that disclosing her identity in this litigation would compromise America’s national security, operational security of her Unit, and her personal safety as well as the safety of the other unit members. … [And] while plaintiff claims that retaliation against her “because of her unvaccinated status is … already occurring,” the only example she cites is a denial of the opportunity to attend “Squadron Officer School, a required professional military education course for Air Force and Space Force Captains,” and this denial apparently was the result of a policy of the “National Reconnaissance Office … restrict[ing]Unvaccinated people are not allowed to travel on any type of travel except mission-essential travel. The loss of this opportunity seems to have been the result of an overall policy and not an individual, punitive action targeting plaintiff because of her religious objections. An Air Force or Space Force pilot who has not been vaccinated because of a nonreligious reason such as a medical condition would similarly be ineligible to serve temporary duty, or any other training opportunity she would normally take. …

[P]laintiff’s generalized concerns about being stigmatized, ostracized, and facing “even greater harm to her military career should her lawsuit … be made public,”  are entirely speculative, and the risk of harassment and criticism represents the quintessential “annoyance and criticism that may attend any litigation,” and are far less severe than the degree of serious mental harm or physical danger necessary to override the strong public interest in transparent legal proceedings. Qualls, v. Rumsfeld (D.D.C. 2005. (“Bringing litigation can expose a plaintiff o scrutiny and criticism, and can affect how plaintiff is viewed in coworkers, friends, and family, but fears about embarrassment and vague, unsubstantiated concerns of retaliatory action by higher-ups don’t permit a Plaintiff to proceed under a pseudonym,” Stegall(“The threat that hostile public reaction will be to a suit, alone, will only with very rareity justify public anonymity.”)….

See my for more information on this general question. Pseudonymous Litigation: The Law.