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Court Sides With College Student-Athletes Regarding Religious Exemptions from Vaccine Mandate

By Paula Jackson

Dec. 1, 2021

A recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision confirmed that student-athletes at a public university could participate in collegiate sports without getting vaccinated for COVID-19. The court determined that the university’s vaccination policy violated those students’ rights to free exercise of religion.[1]

In response to the COVID pandemic, the university announced that it was requiring all student-athletes to be vaccinated in order to participate in sports activities, except for potential discretionary exceptions for religious and/or medical reasons. Sixteen Christian student-athletes requested religious exemptions. The university responded by effectively barring all of them from participating in its sports programs. The Christian student-athletes sued, claiming that the university’s policy violated their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. The district court agreed, granting those students the right to participate in collegiate sports activities without vaccination, although it required that they wear masks and undergo regular COVID-19 testing. The university appealed, requesting that the appellate court enforce its vaccination policy against Christian student-athletes.

The appellate court ultimately found that the public university’s vaccination policy likely violated the Christian student-athletes’ free exercise of religion by banning their participation in collegiate sports activities unless they sacrificed their religious principles and took the vaccine. In this case, it is worth noting that the university’s vaccination policy was not neutral (or generally applicable to all) but included a discretionary method by which the university could grant individual religious or medical exemptions. As a result, the court had to use a stricter test since the university could pick and choose which exemptions to grant.

The university did not pass the more rigorous test. The court acknowledged that the university’s interest in protecting student-athletes with mandatory vaccinations was compelling. However, the court ultimately determined that the school’s “mandatory vaccination with no exemptions” policy could not be imposed on student-athletes because it was not “narrowly tailored to achieve those interests.” For instance, the policy did not require vaccination of non-athlete students to whom the athletes were exposed while on-campus, and that oversight created more of a risk to student-athletes than their unvaccinated Christian team-mates who were wearing masks and testing for COVID regularly. Furthermore, the court indicated that other universities permitted vaccine exemptions.[2]

Since this area of the law is complicated and constantly evolving, universities, colleges, and schools should contact legal counsel for assistance in designing and implementing vaccine mandates and exemption processes for students and/or student-athletes.

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[1]Dahl, et al v. Board of Trustees of Western Michigan University, Case No. 21-2945, Order on Emergency Motion to Stay Injunction Pending Appeal (“Order”) (6th Cir. Oct. 7, 2021). The full test of this Order can be found at https://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/21a0234p-06.pdf. [2] Dahl, No. 21-2945, Order at 9-10.

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