On Oct. 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio, ruled in favor of sixteen athletes, supporting their right to remain unvaccinated despite a mandate issued by the Western Michigan University (WMU). The court decided that the WMU mandate, which required all inter-collegiate athletes to be inoculated, violated the First Amendment rights of the athletes.
The sixteen athletes, mostly women, had initially applied for a religious exemption, a request that was denied by the university. The group filed a lawsuit, asking that they be allowed to continue playing sports despite being unvaccinated.
A lower court had issued an injunction, stopping the university from enforcing the mandate on the athletes. It judged that the mandate potentially violated the athletes’ right to adhere to their Christian faith.
The case then went to the appeals court which declined to stop the decision made by the lower court. The three-judge panel of the appeals court pointed out that the WMU mandate made playing sports at the university conditional on the plaintiff’s willingness to abandon their “sincere religious beliefs.”
“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. … 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,” the court said in a 3-0 opinion.
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In the lawsuit, the athletes had argued that their faith precluded them from getting a COVID-19 vaccine. WMU countered by saying that its vaccination policy was neutral against all religions and that players, though barred from participating in games, can still retain their scholarship and are members of their respective teams.
However, the court noted that the main goal of the athletes is to play for the team and not the scholarship. The appeals court also advised WMU that should it pursue a full-fledged appeal, the athletes are still likely to win the case based on the rights accorded to them by the constitution.
David Kallman, the lawyer who represented the athletes, called the judgment a “great win” for religious liberty. According to Kallman, the ruling is now a “binding precedent” in four states – Tennessee, Michigan, Kentucky, and Ohio.
“The Sixth Circuit Court vindicated their (his clients) religious convictions and that they can continue to be part of their teams… 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,” Kallman said in a press release.
By mid-September, almost 66 percent of students, staff, and faculty at WMU were fully vaccinated, exceeding the rate of vaccination in the state of Michigan, which at that time, was 57 percent.
Though the university mandated vaccination for athletes, it has not issued such a requirement for the entire student body. However, unvaccinated individuals have to regularly get tested. To promote vaccination among students, WMU had introduced incentives like scholarships valued at up to $20,000.