Paul L. Caron

Sunday, October 10, 2021

6th Circuit: University Cannot Deny Christian Student Athletes Religious Exemptions From COVID-19 Vaccination Requirement

Dahl v. Board of Trustees of Western Michigan University, No. 21-2945 (6th Cir. Oct. 7, 2021):

Western Michigan University, a public university, requires student athletes to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but it considers individual requests for medical and religious exemptions on a discretionary basis. Sixteen student-athletes applied for religious exemptions. The University ignored or denied their requests and barred them from participating in any team activities. The student-athletes then sued, alleging, among other things, that University officials violated their free exercise rights. The district court preliminarily enjoined the officials from enforcing the vaccine mandate against plaintiffs. Now, the officials ask us to stay the injunction and proceedings in the district court pending appeal. Although it is a close call, because the free exercise challenge will likely succeed on appeal, the factors considered in granting a stay favor the student-athletes. Accordingly, we decline to issue a stay. ...

[T]he University ... allows non-athletes—the vast majority of its students—to remain unvaccinated. One need not be a public health expert to recognize that the likelihood that a student-athlete contracts COVID-19 from an unvaccinated non-athlete with whom she lives, studies, works, exercises, socializes, or dines may well meet or exceed that of the athlete contracting the virus from a plaintiff who obtains a religious exemption to participate in team activities. ...

We do not doubt defendants’ good faith, nor do we fail to appreciate the burdens COVID-19 has placed on this nation’s universities. To that point, our holding is narrow. Other attempts by the 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, the University must explain why it chose not to grant any to plaintiffs. And it did not fairly do so here. 

Religion Clause, 6th Circuit: Christian Student Athletes Wrongly Denied Exemption From COVID Vaccine Mandate

(Hat Tip: Steven Sholk)

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