Vaccine mandate for student-athletes fouls out
Appeals court blocks COVID-19 requirement for those with religious qualms
Hannah Redoute says her objection to taking a COVID-19 vaccine comes down to her lifelong Catholic faith. “The Catholic Church states that no one should be obligated to get the vaccine,” said the student-athlete at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. “I am strongly pro-life, and the church has stated that Catholics can refuse abortion-tainted vaccines.”
Redoute, a soccer player, made her comments on Aug. 25, just as classes resumed, in a request for a religious exemption to Western Michigan University’s vaccine rules. While most students could choose weekly testing rather than vaccination, the school required student-athletes to get a COVID-19 vaccine to participate in its sports program. School officials told Redoute they offer religious exemptions to the athlete vaccine mandate on a case-by-case basis. Yet the school denied her religious exemption request—along with those of 15 other student-athletes.
Redoute and her fellow student-athletes sued the university, and last month a federal judge temporarily blocked
the mandate. A unanimous appeals court panel on Thursday agreed, writing in an unsigned opinion that school officials burdened the 16 students’ free exercise rights by requiring them to abandon sincere religious beliefs to participate in sports.
While many Christians believe the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines’ connection to abortion is too remote to justify refusing them, some argue the vaccines are still morally tainted because they used abortion-linked fetal cell lines while undergoing quality testing.
The appeals court said that while restrictions on religious liberty can sometimes be warranted, the school needed to demonstrate a compelling reason and use the most narrowly tailored means to accomplish its goal.
“The different approaches taken to student-athletes and non-athlete student[s] undermines [the university’s] position that a vaccine requirement is necessary to achieve its compelling interest,” the court wrote. It noted the irony that “student-athletes will sit next to unvaccinated students in class, they will eat with unvaccinated students in dining halls, they will worship with unvaccinated students, and they will socialize with unvaccinated students both on and off campus” but could not play with other athletes.
David Kallman, a civil rights attorney with the Great Lakes Justice Center who represented the athletes, said the ruling would have an immediate effect in the four states under the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee—and could influence the rest of the country.
Kallman distinguished Western Michigan’s approach from that of Indiana University, whose vaccine mandate a federal court upheld in July. Indiana University’s mandate covered all students and included nondiscretionary medical and religious exemptions. Kallman said that likely explained why U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett declined to accept an emergency petition asking for a review of the case.
Western Michigan officials issued a statement late Thursday suggesting they may appeal: “We will continue to abide by the court’s decision and allow the student-athletes in the matter to fully participate in their sport while we also consider our next steps in the case.”
Kallman, who indicated he has been vaccinated but is opposed to mandates, argues people need to make informed medical decisions and be allowed to follow their consciences. “People are being driven to fear and panic to give up their constitutional protections, all in the name of safety,” he said. “That’s a huge mistake.”
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