Can student-athletes receive a religious exception to the Western Michigan University’s COVID-19 policy mandating vaccination for only student-athletes?

YES! Western Michigan University cannot mandate a COVID-19 vaccination for student athletes without allowing for any religious exemptions, even though the policy states that the University will consider medical or religious exemptions on an individual basis. According to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Dahl, et al v. Board of Trustees of Western Michigan University, et al “defendants likely violated plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.”

Sixteen student athletes asked for a religious exemption to the school’ s COVID-19 policy that requires all student-athletes to be vaccinated against COVID-19. However, according to the policy, it considers individual requests for medical and religious exemptions on an individual basis. The school denied or ignored all sixteen requests from the student-athletes for religious exemptions. The University refused to allow any unvaccinated players to participate in college sports. However, the University did allow the students to maintain their athletic scholarships and did not dismiss the student-athletes from their respective teams.

But what athlete wants to remain on the team, keep their scholarship, and not be able to compete in team activities just because they did not get a COVID-19 vaccine for religious reasons? Clearly, that did not satisfy any of the 16 student-athletes in this case. All 16 students sued, alleging that the University officials violated their First Amendment Free Exercise Clause. The First Amendment in conjunction with the Fourteenth Amendment prevents a state from “‘prohibiting the free exercise'” of religion. The Western District of Michigan enjoined the University from enforcing the vaccine mandate against plaintiffs. However, the University was allowed to require the student-athletes to wear face masks and to take COVID-19 tests to participate in sporting events. The defendants then appealed, asking for the court to stay the injunction and proceedings in the district court pending appeal.

According to the opinion, the legal standard “to determine whether to grant a stay pending appeal, we consider ‘(1) the likelihood that the party seeking the stay will prevail on the merits; (2) the likelihood that the moving party will be irreparably harmed; (3) the prospect that others will be harmed by the stay; and (4) the public interest in the stay.'” The first factor tends to be the most determinative factor in the analysis. The appeals court will not overturn the district court finding unless the court relied on a clearly erroneous finding of fact, improperly applied the governing law, or used an erroneous legal standard.

The Court decided that “by conditioning, the privilege of playing sports on plaintiffs’ willingness to abandon their sincere religious beliefs, the University burdened their free exercise rights.” The Court also noted that the student-athletes must be fully qualified to participate in college athletics. The decision states that the student-athletes were clearly qualified to play sports, especially since they were already student athletes. However, not all burdens on the free exercise of religion are unconstitutional. The COVID-19 policy for athletes was not generally applicable to all students because the policy stated that it would grant exemptions on an individual basis. So, “the University must prove that its decision not to grant religious exemptions to plaintiffs survives strict scrutiny.” The University’s failure to provide exemption to student-athletes must serve interests of the highest order and be narrowly tailored to those goals. The Sixth Circuit recognized that the University has been faced with the large task of running a public university during a global pandemic, which is compelling. The University’s policy only mandated that student-athletes be vaccinated. All non-student-athletes can be unvaccinated. This means that student-athletes can socialize with non-vaccinated individuals.

The Court went on to state that based on Western University’s own documentation, the district court’fs finding that the plaintiffs did not receive an exemption was not clearly erroneous. The Court also went on to state that because the “University’s ‘exemption’ would not allow the plaintiffs to engage fully in team activities, the district court did not clearly err by finding that the University denied plaintiffs’ requests for exemptions in substance as well as form.” The Court stated that the first factor for determining a stay favors the plaintiffs.

On October 7th, the Sixth Circuit declined to issue a stay. Only 16 student-athletes asked for an exemption, and the University can force the student-athletes to wear a mask and be subjected to testing, and the school announced that it would allow for individualized exemptions. The University must explain why it chose not to grant any [exemptions] to plaintiffs.”

So what’s next for other universities and sports leagues? What’s clear is that universities and sports leagues cannot issue a policy that allows for vaccination exemptions for medical and religious reasons, but then not allow exemptions for those reasons.

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