Federal appeals court backs Michigan college athletes seeking vaccine exemption
Western Michigan University violated the athletes’ First Amendment rights by denying religious exemptions from vaccine mandate, court rules.
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The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Federal District Court Judge Paul L. Maloney’s preliminary injunction, which allows 16 Western Michigan University (WMU) athletes to continue playing intercollegiate sports despite refusing a Covid-19 vaccine shot.
Appellate Judges Ralph B. Guy, Jr., David W. McKeague, and Chad A. Readler issued their opinion confirming WMU violated the athletes’ First Amendment rights by denying their requests for a religious exemption from the mandate. This decision is now binding precedent in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
“The University put plaintiffs to the choice: get vaccinated or stop fully participating in intercollegiate sports,” the opinion says. “The University did not dispute that taking the vaccine would violate plaintiffs’ ‘sincerely held Christian beliefs.’ Yet refusing the vaccine prevents plaintiffs from participating in college sports, as they are otherwise qualified (and likely were recruited) to do. By conditioning the privilege of playing sports on plaintiffs’ willingness to abandon their sincere religious beliefs, the University burdened their free exercise rights."
The Great Lakes Justice Center (GLJC), on behalf of 16 athletes, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in Grand Rapids challenging WMU’s denial of their request for religious accommodation from the college’s vaccine mandate to participate in sports. The students participated in football, baseball, women’s basketball, women’s soccer, dance team, and cross-country programs. WMU recently instituted a requirement for all its athletes in all sports to take the Covid-19 vaccine or forfeit their right to play intercollegiate sports. No similar vaccine requirement exists for any other students at WMU. Other universities, including Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, are granting religious accommodations to athletes.
U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney initially ordered a 14-day pause on the university's athlete vaccine mandate. WMU would have forced the athletes to be vaccinated by August 31 or be kicked off the team.
David A. Kallman, GLJC senior counsel, welcomed the ruling.
“We are thrilled for our clients that the Sixth Circuit vindicated their religious convictions and that they can continue to be part of their teams, be with their teammates, and compete for WMU at the highest level in a safe manner,” Kallman said in a statement. “We trust all parties can move forward in a spirit of cooperation to uphold the important Constitutional issues at stake, as well as taking appropriate measures to ensure the safety of everyone at WMU.”
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