Federal judge blocks college athlete vaccine mandate in Michigan, preserves one for workers

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled in two different lawsuits over Michigan public institutions’ COVID-19 vaccine mandates, temporarily blocking one at Western Michigan University and preserving another at Michigan State University.
  • In one decision, U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney prohibited Western Michigan from removing four women’s soccer players from the team for two weeks. They sued last month after the institution did not grant religious exemptions to its vaccine requirement, arguing the university’s refusal violated their constitutional rights.
  • Maloney denied a temporary restraining order for a Michigan State worker who challenged the constitutionality of the university’s mandate for employees.

Dive Insight:

Legal battles over coronavirus vaccine requirements are heating up nationwide, though the law is generally on the side of colleges seeking to mandate vaccines while allowing for certain exemptions. Notably, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett last month declined to refer a lawsuit against Indiana University’s vaccine mandate for consideration by the full court.

And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech version of the vaccine for those ages 16 and older. Policy experts predicted the move would set off new rounds of college mandates and provide them with even more legal cover.


But Maloney still ruled against Western Michigan, writing in his decision that the student-athletes would likely succeed in claiming that the university violated their right to religious freedom when it declined to exempt them from its vaccination mandate. The judge noted that Western Michigan has not had a chance to respond to the legal action. Maloney asks the university officials to explain why they denied the exemption request and how their policy fits under a legal requirement that it be “narrowly tailored.”

The university said players must be vaccinated to participate in sports. Non-athlete students and employees that aren’t vaccinated must be tested regularly for the coronavirus to be on campus for the fall.

Maloney wrote that the university can require the four soccer players to wear face coverings during team activities and be tested regularly. But Western Michigan must now justify its policy in court.

At Michigan State, Jeanna Norris, a supervisory, administrative associate, and fiscal officer, sued all the university’s employees. Norris said in court filings the institution did not recognize the natural immunity she acquired after contracting the coronavirus last year and that its vaccine requirement infringed on the constitution and federal law.

The judge rejected Norris’ request for a restraining order, pointing to court precedents that backed public vaccine mandates and saying the FDA’s full approval of Pfizer’s shot invalidated part of her argument. A Michigan State spokesperson declined to comment. Western Michigan did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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