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Western Michigan University Soccer Players Strike Back at School’s Vaccine Mandate

Updated: Aug 11, 2022

In an effort to protect its students as the Delta variant of COVID-19 puts more and more Americans at risk, Western Michigan University instituted a policy whereby all students and faculty members are encouraged – although not required – to get vaccinated. If any student or faculty member chooses not to get vaccinated, the university requires weekly COVID-19 testing until fully vaccinated.[1]

By taking a different approach with student-athletes, the university opened itself up to a lawsuit from four members of its women’s soccer team.[2] Given that all four players are on athletic scholarship at Western Michigan University, the punishment for failure to receive a vaccination has significant financial consequences. Rather than holding student-athletes to the same institutional standards, Western Michigan University made the determination that student-athletes should be held to a higher standard – vaccination was required or the student-athlete would be dismissed from their team.[3]

This story will likely be covered extensively because of the ongoing debate about vaccine mandates in the United States at large, but there are nuances to the background facts of this case that are important to obtaining a clearer picture of what to make of the lawsuit. Most importantly, Western Michigan University made several administrative mistakes that led to lawyers getting involved.

By imposing a different set of requirements for students and faculty members than the university imposed on student-athletes, the appearance of discrimination was created. While appearances do not equate to legal victories, they are important for consideration in certain analyses utilized by courts. Perhaps foreseeing this very type of lawsuit, the university did set up a procedure whereby student-athletes could request a religious or medical exemption to the vaccine mandate. The university failed to actually send out information about the procedure though until after the plaintiffs made a formal request. After the plaintiffs submitted their statements of justification for religious exemptions, the university denied the requested exemptions and once again waited to provide further information as to the justification until the plaintiffs reached out to the university.[4]

The justification that was given? The university has an interest in protecting student-athletes against the spread of COVID-19 because of the significant risk of spread caused by participating in college athletics. In explaining this interest, the university described it as “a compelling interest” and that the vaccine mandate was “the only effective manner of accomplishing this compelling interest” – this language will assuredly be dissected by the court (it reads as though it was crafted for the purposes of appealing to a court’s constitutional analysis). The university also, somewhat surprisingly, noted at the same time that the “insufficiency or insincerity of Plaintiff’s religious beliefs” did not influence the decision to deny the exemptions. Having an administrative procedure for exemptions in place does little good if it is arbitrarily administered.[5] Western Michigan University failed on an administrative level and, to some extent, this lawsuit was the result.

Now to the lawsuit itself. The crux of the argument made by the plaintiffs is that they are Christians and are bound by the Bible and its moral teachings. Furthermore, the plaintiffs contend that they find their identity in their religious beliefs. The plaintiffs are seeking, in additional to several other forms of relief, injunctive relief to prevent the university’s vaccine mandate to student-athletes and a declaration from the university that the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights were violated.[6]

The first claim being brought by the plaintiffs, and the only one that this article will briefly address, is that the vaccine mandate targeted at student-athletes and subsequent denial of religious exemptions by the university constituted a violation of the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights to freedom of religion. Plaintiffs’ counsel argues that the university’s vaccine mandate on student-athletes “substantially interferes” with the exercise of their religion (i.e., part of the plaintiffs’ religious belief and expression is the ability to make medical decisions), that the mandate targeted Christians, that the mandate “further[s] no compelling governmental[7] interest,” and that the mandate was not the “least restrict means” of furthering the university’s interest nor was the interest “narrowly tailored.”(Remember the language the university used in explaining its reason for denying the exemption?).[8] Constitutional law is a tricky area that I am not qualified to wade too far into, but the court will have plenty of recent, significant case law to look to in deciding the controversy at hand.

The case will be important not only as a piece of sports law, but as a referendum on vaccine mandates in the COVID-19 era and in the furtherance of the legal system’s understanding of the First Amendment. Stay tuned – this will be an interesting one!

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