Religious Law

6th Circuit rules for student athletes denied religious exemption from vaccine mandate

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Athletes running on top of a syringe

Sixteen student athletes at Western Michigan University who were denied a religious exemption from a vaccine mandate will likely succeed in their lawsuit, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the university violated the students’ right to the free exercise of religion when it failed to fairly explain why it denied the exemptions. The Associated Press has coverage and the Volokh Conspiracy has highlights from the Oct. 7 per curiam opinion.

The appeals court declined to lift an injunction that required Western Michigan University to allow the students to play intercollegiate sports. The trial-level judge’s order said the athletes can still be required to wear masks at practice and to undergo regular tests.

The appeals court said the university doesn’t impose the same vaccine requirement on students who are not athletes. Students who don’t get vaccinated have to be tested regularly for COVID-19.

“The university put plaintiffs to the choice: get vaccinated or stop fully participating in intercollegiate sports,” the appeals court said. “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.”

Because the university said it would consider individual requests for medical and religious exemptions on a discretionary basis, its policy must survive strict scrutiny, the 6th Circuit said. “Having announced a system under which student-athletes can seek individualized exemptions,” the appeals court said, “the university must explain why it chose not to grant any to plaintiffs. And it did not fairly do so here.”

Hat tip to How Appealing.

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