As vaccination mandates continue to be a topic of discussion and discord in the workplace, the world of college athletics is not exempt from similar mandatory vaccine controversy.

The First Amendment rights of 16 student-athletes seeking a religious exemption as a basis to avoid compliance with Western Michigan University’s (WMU) COVID-19 vaccination requirement were “likely violated,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled, upholding a decision of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

The 16 student-athletes represented a broad, diverse group of student-athletes participating on WMU’s sports teams including football, baseball, women’s basketball, women’s soccer, the dance team, and cross-country programs.

The Circuit Court upheld the District Court’s issuance of a preliminary injunction allowing the student-athletes to continue participating in intercollegiate athletics at WMU despite the athletes’ refusal to comply with WMU’s mandate that all student-athletes receive a COVID-19 vaccine to continue playing and representing WMU in intercollegiate competition.

The Sixth Circuit has jurisdiction over Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, all states containing numerous colleges and universities recognized for their athletic teams.

WMU policy stated that in order “to maintain full involvement in the athletic department,” students must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

This vaccination requirement did not apply to any other students at WMU.

Despite this specific student-athlete directive, the policy provided, “Medical or religious exemptions and accommodations will be considered on an individual basis.”

The Circuit Court focused on the fact that, despite the policy’s recognition of exemptions and accommodations, the WMU denied the student-athlete applications of several student-athletes, stating only that the applicant would have “[n]o participation in Intercollegiate sports.”

In addition, the Court noted, WMU failed to respond to certain accommodation requests, but still prevented the student-athlete from participating as a member of their team in collegiate competition.

The Court also pointed out that WMU only provided the student-athletes the limited choice of getting vaccinated or not fully participating in intercollegiate sports. The Court concluded “that conditioning the privilege of playing sports on plaintiffs’ willingness to abandon their sincere religious beliefs burdened their free exercise rights.”

The Court recognized WMU’s good faith as well as “the burdens COVID-19 has placed on this nation’s universities,” stating its “holding is narrow.”

The Court noted, “[O]ther attempts by the University to combat COVID-19, even those targeted at intercollegiate athletics, may pass constitutional muster.”

However, WMU’s announcement of a process that allows student-athletes to seek individualized exemptions requires the University to explain why it chose not to grant an exemption to any student-athlete seeking such protection.

Jackson Lewis’ Sports Industry Team will continue to monitor any further developments regarding the WMU case and its potential impact on college sports. Please contact a Jackson Lewis attorney or any member of our COVID-19 team if you have any questions.

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Photo of Gregg E. Clifton Gregg E. Clifton

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in…

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in the collegiate and professional sports world. He has advised numerous professional franchises on general labor and employment issues, including Title III ADA regulatory compliance and wage and hour issues. He serves as lead counsel for several Major League Baseball teams in their salary arbitration matters and has represented NCAA and NAIA collegiate clients regarding rules compliance, investigatory matters and in disciplinary hearings. In addition, he has handled Title IX investigations and compliance issues for NCAA and NAIA member institutions. Mr. Clifton has also worked extensively in the area of agent regulation and enforcement in professional and college sports and regularly provides counsel on issues relating to NCAA and NAIA amateurism issues and athlete eligibility questions. He has also served as an expert witness in matters involving sports agents’ work and responsibilities, as well as athlete compensation issues.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, he spent six years as Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Team Sports for Gaylord Sports Management. He also served as President of the Athlete and Entertainment Division for famed sports attorney Bob Woolf’s firm, Woolf Associates, in Boston.

Mr. Clifton began his career as an Associate at Jackson Lewis where he focused his practice on traditional labor law. He continues to counsel clients in the areas of collective bargaining negotiations, representation cases, arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board matters.

Mr. Clifton frequently serves as an expert speaker to law schools, including Harvard University, Boston College, Hofstra University and Arizona State University, and bar associations regarding sports law issues, including agent regulation and salary arbitration. He is also often cited as an expert source in national news media for his commentary and opinion on legal issues in sports.