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Officer files suit over vaccine rule by Coast Guard

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Coast Guard officer is suing his agency and the Homeland Security Department for a religious exemption from a requirement to take the hepatitis A vaccination, which uses cells that the lawsuit says are derived from abortions.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a group that defends religious liberties, filed the suit last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Healy.

Cmdr. Healy's "opposition to receiving the available hepatitis A vaccines is due to the fact that he is a practicing member of the Catholic Church and he strongly opposes abortion," the lawsuit said.

The officer "firmly and sincerely holds a religious belief which counsels against participating in abortion in any way, even remotely or indirectly," the lawsuit said. "This prohibition extends not only to participation in particular abortions, but also to cooperation in or advancing societal structures that facilitate abortion."

The service has required since 2006 that all active-duty Coast Guard personnel receive the vaccination. The Coast Guard allows exceptions to accommodate religious beliefs, but will only do so over objections to vaccination itself, not to how the vaccine was made.

The vaccines are derived from cells taken from the lung tissue of a fetus aborted at 14 weeks gestation and then dissected. A vaccine not derived from an aborted cell line is available in Europe and Japan but not the U.S.

"It is the policy of the Coast Guard not to comment on pending litigation," said Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a Coast Guard spokesman.

The hepatitis A virus is spread from person to person by putting something in the mouth that has been contaminated with the stool of a person with hepatitis A. It is most easily spread in circumstances such as flooded areas or poor countries in which there are poor sanitary conditions or personal hygiene.

Cmdr. Healy submitted a memo requesting the religious exemption, citing a letter from the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, which calls Catholics to conscientiously object to passive cooperation in abortion by means of using vaccines from cells obtained from an aborted fetus.

His request was denied in May 2007 by Capt. Brent Pennington, who said that Catholic teaching "does not state that these immunizations are against the religious tenets of the Catholic Church."

"Please note that the refusal to be vaccinated or failure to comply with a lawful order to be vaccinated is a violation of Coast Guard regulations," Capt. Pennington said in a memo to Cmdr. Healy. "Any member who refuses to be vaccinated or fails to comply with a lawful order to be vaccinated is subject to military proceedings under [the Uniform Code of Military Justice] or other appropriate administrative proceedings at the unit commander's discretion."

Matt Bowman, lead counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, called it "most troubling that the government would decide some religions get exemptions and others do not based on their own arbitrary judgments."

"We asked the court to step in because, at any moment, he could be ordered to be vaccinated," Mr. Bowman said.

"He is not asking for special treatment; he is simply saying the Coast Guard cannot disfavor his religion over the beliefs of others when it offers religious exemptions," Mr. Bowman said.