An Update on the Western Michigan University Vaccine Mandate Case
When I previously wrote about the lawsuit being brought by four Western Michigan University soccer players for Conduct Detrimental – Western Michigan University Soccer Players Strike Back at School’s Vaccine Mandate (conductdetrimental.com) – the lawsuit was still very much in its beginning stages. I believed then, and still believe now, that the case would be important in a broader sense because of its implications on the permissibility of vaccine mandates and on how the court would reason through the freedom of religion issue that it would be faced with. As a quick refresher, the lawsuit was brought by four soccer players at Western Michigan University who claimed that the school’s requirement that athletes be vaccinated against COVID-19, or be removed from playing sports for the university, violated their constitutional rights to freedom of religion under the First Amendment.
Scanning over news headlines regarding this case, it would appear that the soccer players have already won the lawsuit. Most of the headlines I found stated in some form that a judge determined that Western Michigan University could not mandate the vaccine for its student-athletes. The attorney for the plaintiffs even referred to it as possibly being the first case in the country “where the court has blocked a mandated vaccine for athletes.”
But that is not quite right – the actual rulings in the case so far are a bit more nuanced. Any determination that the university could not mandate the vaccine, however, is only temporary as the actual legal ruling in the case was for a temporary restraining order. Under the terms of the temporary restraining order, the student-athlete lawsuits in the case will be able to remain on the soccer team at Western Michigan University, despite the university’s vaccine mandate on student-athletes, pending resolution of the matter in court. So, yes, the university cannot mandate the vaccine for its student-athletes, but the court may ultimately find that it can.
In granting the temporary restraining order, Judge Paul L. Maloney stated that the burden would be on the university to “establish the compelling reason for its actions” and also to “explain why the decision to remove the unvaccinated players from intercollegiate competition is narrowly tailored” to achieve the aforementioned compelling reason for the vaccine mandate.
Administratively, as discussed in the prior article on Conduct Detrimental, it appears that Western Michigan University anticipated the possibility of such a challenge on the student-athlete vaccine mandate. In denying the religious accommodation requests to the vaccine mandate made by the soccer players, Western Michigan University stated:
The University has a compelling interest in taking action to avoid the significant risk posed to the intercollegiate athletic programs of a COVID-19 outbreak due to unvaccinated participants. Prohibiting unvaccinated members of the teams from engaging in practices and competition is the only effective manner of accomplishing this compelling interest. [Emphasis my own]
Now will they be able to get a court to uphold their mandate? Is mandating that student-athletes be vaccinated or be removed from their teams the “only effective manner” of avoiding the risk of COVID-19 being spread through intercollegiate athletics? That question remains to be answered. Interestingly enough, Judge Maloney also oversaw a case brought by an administrative assistant at Michigan State University based on its vaccine mandate and denied a temporary restraining order because he felt that the plaintiff in the case was unlikely to show that Michigan State University vaccine mandate was not “rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest, i.e., the health and safety of the public.” Michigan State University vaccine mandate applied to all students, staff, and faculty unlike Western Michigan University’s vaccine mandate that only applied to student-athletes – I think that distinction is key in understanding why Judge Maloney granted a temporary restraining order in one case and not in the other case.
For now, the student-athletes will be exempted from the vaccine mandate pending trial and will remain on the soccer team at Western Michigan University. And to raise the stakes just a little more, twelve more student-athletes at Western Michigan University have joined the lawsuit since it was first brought.
 Court blocks mandated vaccine for WMU soccer players, MSU employee loses natural immunity argument (fox2detroit.com).  Judge: Western Michigan can't mandate vaccine for all student athletes (yahoo.com).  Judge: Western Michigan can't mandate vaccine for all student athletes (yahoo.com).  Vaccine mandate lawsuit: Western Michigan University soccer player defends decision to fight school's COVID policy - ABC7 Chicago.  Court blocks mandated vaccine for WMU soccer players, MSU employee loses natural immunity argument (fox2detroit.com); Judge blocks WMU from mandating COVID vaccine for athletes (freep.com).  Lawsuit claims WMU vaccine mandate for athletes violates medical, religious freedoms | WWMT.