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Where Western Michigan University’s Vaccine Mandate Case Stands

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

The case brought by student-athletes in opposition to Western Michigan University’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all student-athletes has finally reached its resolution. If you are not familiar with the case, Conduct Detrimental has previously covered both the background of the lawsuit and the first major update as the case moved through the court system. Put simply: Western Michigan University issued a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all of its student-athletes, a mandate that was different than the vaccination requirements for other students, faculty, and staff who were only “strongly encouraged”[1] to get vaccinated, and several student-athletes who were denied a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate challenged its constitutionality.

After a months-long court battle, Western Michigan University and the student-athlete plaintiffs reached a settlement on Tuesday, November 16th. As part of the settlement, the university agreed to allow the student-athletes to continue participating in intercollegiate athletics without being vaccinated against COVID-19. The student-athletes will, however, be required to submit to regular testing in addition to wearing masks when appropriate.[2] Effectively, the settlement adjusted the university’s vaccine requirements so that student-athletes and all other students, faculty, and staff are subject to the same standards concerning vaccination – that is, vaccination is strongly encouraged but not required – and testing.

Rather than having a separate vaccine mandate for student-athletes, student-athletes will be treated no differently than anyone else at Western Michigan University. Unfortunately for constitutional law scholars and constitutional law nerds alike, this case resulting in a settlement means that there will not be a full adjudication of the question as to whether the vaccine mandate was constitutional. The admittedly narrow holding by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals will be the final, pre-settlement takeaway for the case:

We do not doubt [Western Michigan University’s] good faith, nor do we fail to appreciate the burdens COVID-19 has placed on this nation’s universities. . . . Other attempts by [Western Michigan University] to combat COVID-19, even those targeted at intercollegiate athletics, may pass constitutional muster[.] . . . . But having announced a system under which student-athletes can seek individualized exemptions, [Western Michigan University] must explain why it chose not to grant any to plaintiffs. And it did not fairly do so here[.][3]

By creating a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate that student-athletes could apply for and then denying all such exemption requests without any reasoning, Western Michigan University was doomed from the start.

The university released the following joint statement on behalf of Western Michigan University and the student-athletes after the settlement was announced:

The student-athletes involved in the vaccine lawsuit and Western Michigan University have reached a settlement of the pending litigation, allowing both parties to move forward[.] The settlement entails the students in the suit being awarded permanent relief from the athletics vaccine mandate, although they will continue to abide by testing and mask requirements. The University will play their legal fees in the amount of $34,000.[4] The Court of Appeals acknowledged that all parties were acting in good faith. The University wishes the student-athletes well in their academic and athletic careers, and the student-athletes are excited to continue their academic and athletic careers at WMU.[5]

Hopefully the university and its student-athletes will be able to move on from this lawsuit and have successful (healthy) seasons.

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