Western Michigan settles with athletes over vaccine mandate, agrees to pay legal fees

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Western Michigan University athletes who were told they could not compete without getting the COVID-19 vaccine have settled with the university and received assurances their legal fees would be paid.

The stipulated agreement between the 16 athletes and the university would allow U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney to enter a permanent injunction against Western's vaccination requirements for the athletes, according to a statement from the athlete's attorney.

Maloney previously entered a temporary injunction on behalf of the athletes that was upheld unanimously by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Under the agreement, which Maloneysigned Tuesday afternoon, the students would have to continue complying with testing and masking requirements. 

The university also agreed to pay the athletes' $34,617 in legal fees in the agreement filed in court Monday. 

"The university wishes the student athletes well in their academic and athletic careers, and the student athletes are excited to continue their academic and athletic careers at WMU," a joint statement said from the university and the Great Lakes Justice Center, which represented the athletes. 

David Kallman, senior counsel for the Great Lakes Justice Center, added that he was satisfied with the result. 

"We are pleased that WMU has agreed to resolve this matter, that our clients’ religious convictions were vindicated, and that they can continue to be part of their teams, be with their teammates, and compete for WMU at the highest level in a safe manner," Kallman wrote in a statement.

The athletes had sought a vaccine exemption on religious grounds but were ignored or denied their requests, prompting the lawsuit. The athletes had argued they are “devoted Christian people” who believe the Bible and their faith preclude them from getting a COVID-19 shot.

Maloney ruled in September that the Western Michigan vaccine requirement likely violates the athletes’ constitutional right to follow their Christian religion. The Court of Appeals upheld Maloney's ruling in October. 

“We do not doubt (WMU’s) good faith, nor do we fail to appreciate the burdens COVID-19 has placed on this nation’s universities. … But having announced a system under which student-athletes can seek individualized exemptions, the university must explain why it chose not to grant any to plaintiffs. And it did not fairly do so here,” the court said in a 3-0 opinion.

Western Michigan had argued that its vaccination policy is neutral toward religion. The school said athletes who seek a religious exemption are barred from competing but still are members of a team and can keep their scholarship.

The Western Michigan athletes' lawsuit was filed around the same time that a Michigan State University employee challenged the East Lansing school's ' vaccine mandate, but on different grounds. 

The case filed by 37-year-old Jeanna Norris, an MSU administrative associate and fiscal officer, challenged the university's vaccine mandate on the premise that Norris already had natural immunity after contracting COVID-19 late last year.

In late August, Maloney denied a request from Norris for a temporary restraining order against MSU's mandate. In October, he also denied the request for a preliminary injunction against MSU's vaccine mandate for employees with naturally acquired immunity to COVID-19.

Norris has filed a notice that she will appeal Maloney's decision to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com