Unanimous 6th Circuit ruling for students religious exemptions.
Western Michigan University's rule barred every unvaccinated student-athlete from engaging in team activities
On October 7th, 2021, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which covers Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee unanimously supported 16 unvaccinated students religious exemptions holding that Western Michigan University’s mandate violated the athletes’ First Amendment rights. It is holding the policy to the strict scrutiny standard meaning that a government policy maker has to show a compelling government interest to deny the religious exemptions. This standard applies far beyond the university to any government-imposed mandates. Some examples are public employees, public schools, counties, and public hospitals. The Court did say masking or testing may be required.
From the Court: [the test] The First Amendment, as incorporated through the Fourteenth Amendment, prevents a state from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. U.S. CONST. amend. I; see Mount Elliott Cemetery Ass’n v. City of Troy, 171 F.3d 398, 403 (6th Cir. 1999). Burdens on one’s free exercise may be direct, as where a state criminalizes a particular faith or religious practice. See Emp. Div., Dep’t of Hum. Res. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 877–78 (1990). But “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions,” also trigger scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012, 2022 (2017) (citation omitted). Accordingly, a policy that forces a person to choose between observing her religious beliefs and receiving a generally available government benefit for which she is otherwise qualified burdens her free exercise rights. See Fulton v. City of Phila., 141 S. Ct. 1868, 1876 (2021); Trinity Lutheran, 137 S. Ct. at 2023. The reason is simple: denying a person “an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens” because of her faith discourages religious activity. Lyng v. Nw. Indian Cemetery Protective Ass’n, 485 U.S. 439, 449 (1988).
From the Court: [the finding] “The university put plaintiffs to the choice: Get vaccinated, or stop fully participating in intercollegiate sports. By conditioning the privilege of playing sports on plaintiffs’ willingness to abandon their sincere religious beliefs, the university burdened their free exercise rights….The First Amendment, as incorporated through the 14th Amendment, prevents a state from ‘prohibiting the free exercise’ of religion.”
There was an interesting citation to an opinion from the Seventh Circuit Court of appeals which found that a university’s vaccine mandate was neutral and generally applicable, and therefore subject to rational basis review, when it provided a non-discretionary religious exemption to students. Meaning that if a student asked for an exemption, he or she got one.
The opinion is here.
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