Court Sides with WMU Athletes, Allows Plaintiffs to Compete for Now Without COVID-19 Vaccine

Sep 24, 2021

A federal judge from the Western District of Michigan has granted a motion for a temporary restraining order, which will allow more than a dozen student athletes at Western Michigan University, who have not been vaccinated against COVID 19, to continue to participate in athletics. The decision gives the court time to consider the merits of their request for an injunction blocking the school’s policy of requiring a vaccination to participate in athletics.

The plaintiffs are seeking a religious accommodation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.

Specifically, they claimed the university is violating their First Amendment rights, their right to due process, their 14th Amendment rights to privacy, self-autonomy and personal identity as well as argues the university discriminates against their sincerely held religious beliefs.

In granting the motion, the court wrote that the policy “is not justified by a compelling interest and is not narrowly tailored.”

The court continued: “When law forces an individual to choose between following her religious beliefs or forfeiting benefits, the law places a substantial burden on the individual’s free exercise of religion.” 

The original plaintiffs were represented by the Great Lakes Justice Center, a team of constitutional law attorneys who have filed various lawsuits during the pandemic challenging the legality of public health restrictions.

Lansing-based attorney David Kallman told Yahoo Sports that the original plaintiffs have ​​agreed to wear masks and to be regularly tested for the virus.

He went on to identify a passage of the bible that states that human bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” and should be treated that way.

“To allow the government to inject something into your body that you don’t necessarily agree with is the antithesis of that,” he told the media company.

“Really the key point here is whatever their religious belief, the case law is clear from the Supreme Court on down. A personal religious belief is just that. It’s personal to the person. The government has no right to challenge it. If a person says they have this religious belief, the government has to accept that.”

The difference in policies for the general student body and athletes rankled Kallman.

“That is discriminatory,” he told Yahoo Sports. “They’re not treating all students equally. What difference is there between participating in a sport and being in the choir or labs or classes or dorms and on and on? If vaccines are a necessity, they seem to be undercutting their own argument by not requiring it for all the other students.”

The position of the university, which does not have a vaccine mandate for the general student body, has been that the plaintiffs do not have a right to compete in athletics.

“It is factually untrue that the plaintiffs have been compelled to submit to a medical treatment,” it has argued. “The policy does not require the plaintiffs to receive any medical treatment at all. It merely imposes a consequence for athletes who are not vaccinated. As discussed above, there is no right to participate in athletics, so the consequence is not the deprivation of a constitutionally protected liberty interest – there is no constitutional right to participate in intercollegiate athletics.”

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