Unvaccinated student-athletes at Western Michigan University can continue being part of their respective teams after a federal judge extended an order blocking the school in Kalamazoo from enforcing its COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
According to The Associated Press, U.S. district judge Paul Maloney ruled last week that a group of Western Michigan athletes challenging the mandate had a “right to continue to compete and participate in intercollegiate athletics until he issues an opinion and order on converting a temporary restraining order into a preliminary injunction.”
Unvaccinated members of the Western Michigan student body must undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. However, the university announced in August that athletes must be vaccinated against the COVID-19 pandemic in order to continue participating in team activities.
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Several student-athletes responded with a lawsuit. The Detroit News reported last month that Emily Dahl, Hannah Redoute, Bailey Korhorn and Morgan Otteson filed suit against Western University, university president Edward Montgomery and athletic director Kathy Beauregard. The women’s soccer players said the university's requirement that student-athletes get vaccinated in order to remain on the active roster "seeks to override" their "sincerely held religious beliefs and viewpoint and discriminates against them on the basis of their religion." The lawsuit, which was filed by the Great Lakes Justice Center, says the university’s student-athlete vaccination policy violates the student-athletes’ First Amendment rights, their right to due process and their 14th Amendment rights to privacy, self-autonomy and personal identity.
“We appreciate Judge Maloney’s ruling that will allow all the student-athletes to continue to be part of their teams, be with their teammates, and compete for WMU at the highest level in a safe manner,” attorney David Kallman said. “Judge Maloney upheld the First Amendment religious conscience rights of our clients and demonstrated there is a limit to government exercise of power when it violates fundamental Constitutional rights.”
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Western Michigan officials responded to the plaintiffs’ preliminary injunction request with a statement saying, “It is factually untrue that the Plaintiffs have been compelled to submit to a medical treatment. The policy does not require the Plaintiffs to receive any medical treatment at all. It merely imposes a consequence for athletes who are not vaccinated. As discussed above, there is no right to participate in athletics, so the consequence is not the deprivation of a constitutionally protected liberty interest – there is no constitutional right to participate in intercollegiate athletics.
“The likelihood of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Athletics program is greatly reduced by having uniform vaccination among the student athletes. Based on transmission levels and isolation requirements, a COVID-19 outbreak in any given sport could reasonably result in forfeited games and suspension or cancellation, in whole or in part, of a season. The requirement that student athletes be vaccinated against COVID-19 is the most effective and reasonable way to guard against a COVID-19 outbreak in any given sport.”