Appeals Court overrules university and grants student athletes religious exemptions to vaccine mandate

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The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in favor of a group of student athletes at Western Michigan University (WMU) who were seeking a religious exemption from the school’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Quick Facts

The 16 athletes, who are mostly female, sought a vaccine exemption on religious grounds but were ignored or denied. They then filed a federal civil rights suit against the school. U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney initially ruled that the WMU vaccine requirement likely violates the athlete’s constitutional rights to follow their Christian faith and ordered a 14-day temporary restraining order on the university’s shot mandate for athletes. The university appealed to the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court, but a three-judge panel with the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court declined to block the initial ruling.

“We do not doubt (WMU’s) good faith, nor do we fail to appreciate the burdens COVID-19 has placed on this nation’s universities,” the court explained in a 3-0 opinion. “But having announced a system under which student athletes can seek individualized exemptions, the university must explain why it chose not to grant any to plaintiffs. And it did not fairly do so here…. By conditioning the privilege of playing sports on plaintiffs’ willingness to abandon their sincere religious beliefs, the University burdened their free exercise rights.” 

The panel further contended that the athletes were likely to prevail on their constitutional argument if the university pursued an appeal.

WMU argued that its vaccination policy is neutral towards religion, and athletes who seek a religious exemption, while unable to compete, are still considered members of the team and can keep their scholarships. However, the appeals courts was not persuaded by the school’s reasoning, stating, “Yet playing on the team, and not just receiving a scholarship, is their goal, a point the university itself recognized.”

The student athletes, who participate in intercollegiate soccer, basketball, and four other sports, said that they are “devoted Christian people,” who believe that the Bible and their faith have guided their decisions to seek religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine. The court’s ruling did allow WMU to require the unvaccinated student athletes to wear a mask at practice or submit to regular testing.

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which represented the students, hailed the ruling by saying, “This is a great victory for these athletes against these unlawful COVID shot mandates. Western Michigan University violates federal law when these school officials deny these students’ religious exemptions. No school may force or coerce anyone to take these injections, and certainly not when doing so violates sincerely held religious beliefs.” 

The decision is similar to a federal judge’s ruling that medical students at Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) must be granted the right to religious exemptions and allowed to see patients despite that exemption. Generally speaking, vaccine mandates at universities to this point are being upheld in court; however, the courts are also ruling that those mandates must grant religious exemptions to students under the Constitution’s clear protection of religious liberty. Unless these unvaccinated athletes are actually sick with COVID-19 and therefore contagious, there is no reason why they should not be allowed to play as fully active members of their teams.