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Western Michigan University Athletes Seeking Exemptions Obtain Halt to Vaccine Mandate

Student-athletes denied a COVID-19 exemption by Western Michigan University (University) do not have to comply with the mandate for now.

The University announced a policy requiring all students participating in the athletic department to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The policy allowed for the accommodation of medical or religious exemptions on an individual basis. However, the University denied exemptions to the student-athletes who applied for them or ignored their requests. The University did not allow any of those students to fully participate in intercollegiate sports. Sixteen students sued, claiming the University violated their Free Exercise Clause rights under the First Amendment.

The University’s failure to grant exemptions on religious grounds burdened the athletes’ free exercise rights, according to the Sixth Circuit. These students had to either get vaccinated or lose their ability to participate in sports. The University did not question the sincerity of the students’ beliefs. Asking them to choose between their beliefs and playing sports burdened their rights, the court held. The Free Exercise Clause “protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion.’” The University did not provide adequate justification for refusing to grant the exemptions. The circuit court stated the University’s interest in fight COVID is “compelling.” However, the University’s method of achieving that compelling interest was not narrowly tailored. The University did not require non-athletes to be vaccinated. The court also pointed to other universities that had provided exemptions to their students. The stay on enforcement of the University’s mandate is limited to the sixteen players seeking exemptions. The University may still require masks and regular COVID-19 testing. In its conclusion, the Sixth Circuit noted the narrowness of this holding and that other attempts to combat COVID by the University could pass constitutional muster.