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Court Rules Against Public University’s Vaccine Mandate for Athletes

Western Michigan University has sought to impose a vaccine mandate on its athletes. Sixteen athletes sued the University in federal court after they were denied a religious exemption and excluded from team activities. The athletes argued that the University had violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution. A trial court found that the athletes’ free exercise challenge was likely to succeed and preliminarily enjoined the University from enforcing its mandate against the sixteen athletes. The university then appealed.

Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the university and declined to stay the injunction. The court found that the University was not likely to prevail on the merits of its case. It also found that the athletes’ First Amendment rights would likely be violated by further enforcement of the University’s policy.

The court’s opinion represents one of the first successful constitutional challenges to a public entity’s vaccine requirements. Most challenges to government vaccine mandates or requirements have failed. But the Sixth Circuit’s decision should serve as a reminder to government employers and public entities that the Free Exercise Clause is still in force even amid the COVID pandemic.

The court had no problem acknowledging that the University had a compelling interest in fighting COVID-19. But ultimately, the University failed to explain how its vaccine policy was “narrowly tailored” to further that interest in light of the fact that the policy allowed for individuals to seek an exemption and did not apply to non-athletes. As the Court noted, “[o]ne need not be a public health expert to recognize that the likelihood that a student-athlete contracts COVID-19 from an unvaccinated non-athlete with whom she lives, studies, works, exercises, socializes, or dines may well meet or exceed that of the athlete contracting the virus from a plaintiff who obtains a religious exemption to participate in team activities.”

Lawyers and judges alike are bracing for a wave of lawsuits challenging newly minted vaccine mandates and requirements. Government entities and public employers need to understand the constitutional parameters of their authority and should work with attorneys that understand the civil rights in play.

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