Federal judge extends halt to Western Michigan's athlete vaccine mandate

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A federal judge on Thursday extended the pause to Western Michigan University's athlete vaccine mandate, allowing 16 unvaccinated athletes to continue playing until he issues an opinion on the request to stop the university policy. 

U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney issued the ruling from the bench Thursday after a hearing over whether Western Michigan's denial of religious exemptions for the athletes violated those athletes' religious liberty. 

"We appreciate Judge Maloney's ruling that will allow all the student-athletes to continue to be part of their teams, be with their teammates and compete for WMU at the highest level in a safe manner," David Kallman, a lawyer for the athletes, said in a statement.

Western Michigan University wide receiver Jaylen Hall is tackled by Michigan defensive back Gemon Green in the third quarter. A federal judge has extended the pause to Western Michigan University's athlete vaccine mandate

"Judge Maloney upheld the First Amendment religious conscience rights of our clients and demonstrated there is a limit to a government exercise of power when it violates fundamental constitutional rights."

Maloney granted a 14-day temporary restraining order on Aug. 31 to what was initially four female soccer players denied religious exemptions in relation to the university's vaccine mandate. A dozen additional athletes joined the suit last week. 

After the university denied their request for religious exemptions, the athletes were set to be permanently kicked off their teams if they weren't vaccinated prior to Aug. 31. 

Maloney said at the time that Western Michigan's mandate "is not justified by a compelling interest and is not narrowly tailored," elements that are required if there is an infringement on religious rights. 

"When law forces an individual to choose between following her religious beliefs or forfeiting benefits, the law places a substantial burden on the individual's free exercise of religion," wrote the judge, who is an appointee of former President George W. Bush.  

The university could subject the athletes to weekly testing or face mask use, Maloney said.

Thursday's hearing was to consider a more permanent halt to WMU's policy called a preliminary injunction — a pause that would remain in place until the case is decided.  

Maloney is expected to rule on the request in the coming days but, until then, the halt to the university's policy will remain in place. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com