Western Michigan soccer players join MSU employee filing lawsuits against COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Four female soccer players at Western Michigan University challenged the school's COVID-19 vaccine requirement for athletes Monday, saying it violates their Christian beliefs. 

The lawsuit came days after a Michigan State University employee sued to block its mandate, which is broader and applies to all students, faculty and staff.

The players -- Emily Dahl, Hannah Redoute, Bailey Korhorn and Morgan Otteson -- said Western Michigan on Aug. 12 required them to get a shot by month's end or be removed from the team. They were denied religious exemptions, according to their federal case filed in Grand Rapids, which noted the school in Kalamazoo does not require the general student body to be vaccinated.

"Defendants' policies violate the First Amendment by punishing students who exercise their religious beliefs in connection with their personal medical decisions," said the suit, which was brought by the Lansing-based Great Lakes Justice Center on the eve of the athletic department's deadline. The group has filed various lawsuits challenging pandemic restrictions including masking requirements.

Western Michigan said it has a "compelling interest" in acting to avoid the "significant risk" of an outbreak due to unvaccinated athletes.

"Prohibiting unvaccinated members of the teams from engaging in practices and competition is the only effective manner of accomplishing this compelling interest," the school said in a statement.

It said affected athletes will not lose scholarships and remain students in good standing to pursue their education.

The Michigan State plaintiff is Jeanna Norris, 37, a supervisory administrative associate and fiscal officer who said she has natural immunity -- confirmed with two recent antibody tests -- because she had COVID-19 last November. The complaint seeks class-action status for other school employees who have been infected with the coronavirus. It was filed Friday by the Washington-based New Civil Liberties Alliance.

Michigan State had no comment.

Western Michigan's rule applies to all student-athletes, coaches and athletic staff. One plaintiff said she believes God has given her the strength to naturally fight illnesses. Another said she trusts the Lord and getting vaccinated would go against her conscience. 

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A third said Catholics can refuse "abortion-tainted" vaccines, an apparent reference to how coronavirus vaccines were tested or developed using cells lines derived from an aborted fetus. The pope has encouraged vaccinations, saying they are safe, effective and an "act of love."

Both cases will be considered by U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney.

Of Michigan's 15 public universities, six have broad vaccine requirements.

The state on Monday reported about 5,000 new virus cases over three days, a daily average of 1,673. The seven-day average as of Saturday, 2,005, was up from 1,433 two weeks earlier, according to Johns Hopkins University. The rate remained lower than in all but four states but was more than quadruple what it was in late July.

Twenty-seven deaths were added to a toll that is above 20,000.