Salt Lake Republicans urge Gov. Cox to defy COVID-19 vaccine mandate for Utah National Guard members

A spokesperson for the Cox administration indicated that the governor was not inclined to push back against the federal requirement.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The National Guard stands guard at the top of the Capitol steps, on Tuesday Jan. 19, 2021.

The Salt Lake County GOP is pressing Gov. Spencer Cox to exempt Utah National Guard members from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for U.S. military members implemented by the Department of Defense.

The letter from party chair Chris Null says the Pentagon is “gloating” about not granting many religious accommodation requests for service members who want to avoid taking the vaccine.

“Without your intervention, many Utah National Guard members will be discharged for noncompliance. As the Commander in Chief of the Utah National Guard, you have the responsibility to protect the rights, including the religious rights, of our Utah National Guard service members. Utah must retain authority over its own National Guard,” Null wrote in an open letter Thursday morning.

Service members say they are finding it nearly impossible to get a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine requirement. Thousands of military members face discharge over their refusal to get the vaccine.

The Republican governors of Iowa, Alaska, Wyoming, Mississippi and Nebraska sent a joint letter to the Pentagon earlier this month asking that the vaccine requirement for National Guard members be withdrawn. They argued that unless activated by the president, the National Guard is under the authority of each state’s governor, and therefore the mandate was not applicable.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt made a similar argument in a lawsuit challenging the Pentagon’s mandate seeking to exempt his state’s Guard members. A federal judge rejected Stitt’s lawsuit, saying service members are already required to get nine vaccinations to serve.

“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,” U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot wrote in his 29-page ruling. “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.”

In his letter to Cox, Null urged Cox to take a stand against the mandate, even if it resulted in the loss of federal funding.

“The impact to their families, our state and national defense, from losing so many service members (who don’t even receive the same medical benefits as the U.S. Army) over an unconstitutional mandate would be devastating. The feedback from the public has been overwhelmingly in support of our Utah National Guard. We remain optimistic that Gov. Cox will join us and other states to defend those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedoms,” Null said in a text message Thursday afternoon.

Cox’s office indicated that the governor was not inclined to defy the mandate.

“The Utah National Guard has a long tradition of being ready to quickly respond to emergencies and mobilizations. Gov. Spencer Cox is in close coordination with the Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Michael Turley, to ensure the Utah National Guard is able to meet readiness requirements for any state or federal mission. Gov. Cox supports our state’s military leaders in this effort, including the medical readiness standards for the Utah National Guard as an important part of keeping our service members safe and ready for any challenge they are called upon to accomplish,” Jennifer Napier Pearce, Cox’s spokesperson, said in a statement.

National Guard members have until June 30 to comply.