Student-athletes at Western Michigan University this month won a restraining order against the school’s requirement for COVID-19 vaccines for athletes.
A group of female soccer players filed the federal lawsuit last month after school officials said they would be required to receive at least one dose of a COVID shot by Aug. 31 or else not be able to play on the team, though they would still be listed on the roster.
Four student-athletes argued that they are Christians who desired a religious exemption from the requirement so as not to violate their faith and assert control over their bodies.
The school denied the request, prompting the women to file a lawsuit claiming that the officials had violated their constitutional rights.
“In God’s eyes, my body is a temple, and He intends for me to keep my body clean from any unclean food or injections. I sincerely believe God has given me the strength to naturally fight off any illnesses and given me a purpose to fulfill during my time here on Earth,” wrote Morgan Otteson, one of the athletes bringing the lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Paul L. Maloney, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled in favor of the women, granting them a temporary order that allows the athletes who challenged the school’s policy to continue to play without being vaccinated as the case moves through the court.
Western Michigan University’s policy applied to student-athletes but not the full student body, according to the complaint.
The school argues that it has a compelling interest to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak among its athletic programs and that participating in sports is a privilege, not a right.
The student-athletes said they would opt for weekly testing and other preventive measures, like wearing a mask indoors, instead of being forced to take a vaccine.
Paula Davis, director of strategic communications for Western Michigan University, said the school is complying with the judge’s temporary order.
“As we don’t comment on ongoing litigation, we don’t have any more to add,” she said.
Leslie Gielow Jacobs, a law professor at University of Pacific, said she predicts the students eventually will lose the case because their claim is weak.
“The school has a strong reason to require vaccines. The religion claim should lose because the rule is that a state university can require religious people to be vaccinated, and take action against them if they are not, so long as it treats all other claims for exemption equally. It looks like the school does that,” she said.
Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at UC Hastings College of Law, said she expects the judge’s move to be overturned.
“The decision based the temporary restraining order on reading the law to mean that any time a university gives religious exemption, any individual religious exemption can only be upheld if that exemption is the least restrictive means. That’s not the way strict scrutiny — the demanding legal standard that requires that a policy be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling interest — generally works,” she said.
The case is Dahl v the Board of Trustees of Western Michigan University. It’s pending in the Western District of Michigan.