The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week handed religious rights a victory in a fight over a COVID-19 vaccination mandate at Western Michigan University.
It means that 16 athletes who requested religious exemptions from the school’s demand that take the experimental shots can continue to compete while the entire court process plays out.
The appeals court explained that the university’s “failure to grant religious exemptions to plaintiffs burdened their free exercise rights.”
“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 decision said.
The decision let stand an injunction allowing the athletes to participate during the proceedings that had been issued by U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Maloney.
The school had asked the 6th Circuit to reverse that order.
According to the Great Lakes Justice Center, which is working on behalf of the 16 athletes, Judges Ralph B. Guy, Jr., David W. McKeague, and Chad A. Readler issued a published opinion that 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 GLJC filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in Grand Rapids challenging WMU’s unlawful denial of the students’ requests for religious accommodation from the college’s vaccine mandate to participate in sports.
The legal team explained, “The students represent numerous teams at WMU including the 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 MSU and U of M, are granting religious accommodations to athletes.”
The judges wrote, “The university put plaintiffs to the choice: get vaccinated or stop fully participating in intercollegiate sports.”
David A. Kallman, senior counsel with the center, said, “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. 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 earlier explained that Maloney’s decision had meant that “the student-athletes to continue to be part of their teams, be with their teammates, and compete for WMU at the highest level in a safe manner. Judge Maloney upheld the First Amendment religious conscience rights of our clients and demonstrated there is a limit to government exercise of power when it violates fundamental Constitutional rights.”
The judges wrote in their decision at the 6th Circuit, “The university’s vaccine mandate does not coerce a non-athlete to get vaccinated against her faith because she, as a non-athlete, cannot play intercollegiate sports either way. But the mandate does penalize a student otherwise qualified for intercollegiate sports by withholding the benefit of playing on the team should she refuse to violate her sincerely held religious beliefs.
“As a result, plaintiffs have established that the university’s vaccination policy for student-athletes burdens their free exercise of religion.”
They also said the university’s rule is subject to “strict scrutiny,” the highest level of court review, because the program itself allowed for exemptions from the mandate, even though the school then refused to grant any.
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