KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WLNS) — Unvaccinated Western Michigan University athletes will continue playing intercollegiate sports, due to a permanent injunction put in place by an appeals judge.
WMU has agreed to stop opposing a legal challenge by athletes who declined to get a COVID-19 vaccine, attorneys said Tuesday.
“It takes a lot to get to the division 1 level to play a sport,” said David Kallman, Senior Legal Counsel, Great Lakes Justice Center, who represented the athletes, “and to have it taken away because of somebody trying to force them to violate their religious faith, that’s a hard thing to deal with for anybody. Our clients can now keep playing and be college students and not have this hanging over their head.”
The decision is binding precedent in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
“The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the athletes’ favor that they did not have to be vaccinated,” Kallman said. “They could not be forced to take a vaccine against their religious objections.”
Kallman told 6 News on behalf of their clients they have agreed to a permanent injunction.
“Our clients can now continue playing their sports and be regular college students who want to live their lives,” Kallman said.
WMU settled the dispute by allowing athletes to play their sport while also undergoing regular testing for the virus and wearing masks when appropriate, according to a court filing.
The university announced in the fall that athletes would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
At least 16 athletes sought an exemption on religious grounds but were turned down.
“They have been cooperating with testing,” Kallman said, “and that shows whether or not they have acquired the virus or not, and if they do then they follow guidelines by quarantining.”
The students represent numerous teams at WMU including football, baseball, women’s basketball, women’s soccer, dance team, and cross-country programs.
The Great Lakes Justice Center (GLJC), on behalf of sixteen athletes, filed the federal civil rights lawsuit challenging WMU’s denial of their request for religious accommodation from the college’s vaccine mandate to participate in sports.
WMU had argued in court that its vaccination policy was neutral toward religion. The school said athletes who sought a religious exemption were still members of a team and could keep their scholarships.
Outside the athletic department, COVID-19 vaccinations are encouraged but not required for WMU students and staff.
WMU will pay $34,000 in legal fees as part of the settlement, attorney David Kallman said.
In a joint statement, GLJC and WMU agreed:
The student-athletes involved in the vaccine lawsuit and Western Michigan University have reached a settlement of the pending litigation, allowing both parties to move forward. The settlement entails the students in the suit being awarded permanent relief from the athletics vaccine mandate, although they will continue to abide by testing and masking requirements. The University will pay their legal fees in the amount of $34,000. The Court of Appeals acknowledged that all parties were acting in good faith. The University wishes the student-athletes well in their academic and athletic careers, and the student-athletes are excited to continue their academic and athletic careers at WMU.”
Those were the terms of an injunction ordered in September by a federal judge and affirmed in October by an appeals court.
The Consent Judgment and Permanent Injunction is posted on the Great Lakes website at www.greatlakesjc.org/cases/dahl_v_wmu/.