Dahl v. Board of Trustees of Western Michigan University, No. 21-2945 (6th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Western Michigan University, a public university, requires student-athletes to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but considers individual requests for medical and religious exemptions on a discretionary basis. Sixteen student-athletes applied for religious exemptions. The University ignored or denied their requests and barred them from participating in any team activities. The student-athletes sued, alleging that University officials violated their free exercise rights.
The district court preliminarily enjoined the officials from enforcing the vaccine mandate against the plaintiffs. The Sixth Circuit declined to stay the injunction and proceedings in the district court pending appeal. The court called the issue “a close call” but concluded the free exercise challenge will likely succeed on appeal. The University’s vaccine mandate does not coerce a non-athlete to get vaccinated against her faith because she, as a non-athlete, cannot play intercollegiate sports either way. The mandate does penalize a student otherwise qualified for intercollegiate sports by withholding the benefit of playing on the team should she refuse to violate her sincerely held religious beliefs. The court applied strict scrutiny and reasoned that the University did not establish a compelling interest in denying an exception to the plaintiffs or that its conduct was narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.