Order extended to keep WMU soccer players on team despite vaccination status

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A judge’s order that four Western Michigan University soccer players will not be removed from the team despite refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 will stand for now.

A temporary restraining order issued on Aug. 31 will be kept in place indefinitely pending further opinion, Judge Paul Maloney decided during a Thursday hearing.

Maloney said that WMU is not implementing the least restrictive environment — though he noted that “most effective is not synonymous with least restrictive.”

WMU has instituted a vaccine requirement for its athletes. The players filed the lawsuit after they were prohibited from playing because they had not gotten vaccinated, claiming it goes against their religious beliefs.

The plaintiff list grew from the original four women’s soccer players to 16 athletes as of Thursday, including players on the football, baseball, women’s basketball, and cross country/track and field teams. Three members of Western Michigan’s dance team are also involved in the lawsuit.

The players’ scholarships for this year were never in jeopardy, but they weren’t allowed to participate in any team activities.

“They’re off the team, they can’t compete. That’s why they’re there. They have an agreement. They have a scholarship with Western Michigan to play. You don’t go to college in Division I athletics to not play,” the athletes’ attorney David Kallman from the Great Lakes Justice Center said.

Kallman argued WMU’s requirement that athletes get vaccinated is an overreach of its power and infringes upon First Amendment protections.

WMU’s attorney Mike Bogren of Grand Rapids-based firm Plunkett Cooney disagreed, arguing this is not a constitutional issue because “participating in intercollegiate athletics is not a generally available benefit” — that is, not everyone can play on a competitive sports team.

Bogren argued that the university’s compelling interest in implementing its vaccine mandate for athletes lies in protecting their health and safety, as well as the financial integrity and reputation of the athletic department. An outbreak among a team, he pointed out, could cause an entire season to be canceled and that could cost the university money.

No further hearings have been set. Kallman said three things could happen moving forward: the case could go to trial, which would take some time; WMU could appeal to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals or the matter could be settled out of court.

The university and its attorneys declined comment to News 8 Thursday, saying they do not comment on ongoing litigation.

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