College athletes in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee who do not wish to vaccinate against COVID-19 for religious or medical reasons can take a victory lap this week. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that the First Amendment rights of student-athletes at Western Michigan University were “likely violated” by the school’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements. Sixteen students, beginning with four women’s soccer players, challenged the mandate after they were benched as a result of refusing vaccination.

Student-Athletes Say University Denied Religious Accommodations

On August 12, 2021, a mass text from Western Michigan University’s athletic director Kathy Beauregard went out to student-athletes, informing them that they had until August 31 to get vaccinated. WMU’s policy stated that students must get a COVID-19 vaccine “to maintain full involvement in the athletic department.” The policy provided for “medical or religious exemptions,” but the university reportedly denied accommodation requests from several student-athletes. Other students at the school are not required to be vaccinated.

Four students from the school’s women’s soccer program submitted requests for religious accommodations, asserting that getting the vaccine would violate their “sincerely held beliefs.” When those requests were denied, the students filed suit, alleging that the school’s actions violated the Free Exercise Clause.

Sixth Circuit Sides With Student-Athletes

In September, United States District Court Judge Paul L. Maloney granted the requested preliminary injunction, holding that the students were likely to succeed in their Free Exercise claims. Athletes from WMU’s football, baseball, women’s basketball, cross country, and dance programs joined the suit, similarly claiming that the school either ignored or denied their requests for religious accommodations to the vaccine mandate.

The Sixth Circuit sided with Judge Maloney, denying the school’s motion for a stay pending appeal. The university argued the Free Exercise Clause only prevents the school from forcing students to choose between their faith and a “generally available benefit,” and the ability to play college sports was not such a benefit. The court disagreed, pointing out that because the students were “otherwise eligible” to play intercollegiate sports—i.e., “eligible apart from the regulation that burdens their religious exercise”— this was indeed a “benefit” encompassed by the Free Exercise Clause. The panel held that the vaccine mandate “does penalize a student otherwise qualified for intercollegiate sports by withholding the benefit of playing on the team should she refuse to violate her sincerely held religious beliefs.”

However, the court noted that its holding was narrow, suggesting that other attempts by the university to control the spread of COVID-19, “even those targeted at intercollegiate athletics, may pass constitutional muster.”

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