JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas (AFNS) --
Air Education and Training Command officials continue their aggressive approach to ensure Airmen are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the service’s Nov. 2 deadline. For Airmen seeking a religious accommodation request, chaplains play a critical role in ensuring each request is fully considered in accordance with DAFI 52-201, Religious Freedom in the Department of the Air Force.
Once an Airman or Guardian requests a vaccination exemption for religious reasons in writing to their commander, a chaplain is appointed to interview the requesting Airman or Guardian.
Chaplain (Col.) Donnette Boyd, AETC command chaplain, explained that chaplains have an essential role when it comes to this process that may seem different from their day-to-day support to Airmen.
“We’re used to seeing a chaplain as a pastor, as a preacher, or as a unit chaplain who visits, and if you’re having difficulties, being the person you go to to listen empathetically,” Boyd said. “However, for religious exemptions, instead of the counselor, the chaplain takes on an interviewer role to assess if the request is based on a sincerely held belief.”
In this capacity, the chaplain serves as a leadership advisor and may ask challenging, direct questions during the interview to ensure they can make the best recommendation to the commander.
Chaplains, alongside medical providers, judge advocates and other subject matter experts, make up the Religious Resolution Team. Each agency makes a recommendation to the commander, and the commander’s recommendation is routed up the chain to the respective major command’s RRT for final review and determination by the MAJCOM commander.
Ultimately, each request must be assessed, and the person’s sincere belief has to be balanced with risk to force and risk to mission. The RRT considers impact on mission accomplishment to include military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, public health, safety and other military requirements.
Boyd noted this is also why the guidance says units should have a chaplain other than the unit chaplain conduct the interview, if possible, to avoid blurring the lines between the two roles.
“In the Air Force Chaplain Corps we’ve been very intentional in ensuring not only that chaplains understand their role, but that the Airmen also understand the role of the chaplain in this capacity,” Boyd said. “Because being able to exercise their First Amendment rights is very important and we, as chaplains, have to make sure we’re following the process correctly.”