WMU soccer players file lawsuit over COVID-19 vaccine mandate

COVID-19 Vaccine

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Four female soccer players at Western Michigan University are challenging the school’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement for athletes Monday, saying it violates their Christian beliefs.

The lawsuit filed Monday comes days after a Michigan State University employee sued over its broader mandate that applies to all students, faculty and staff.

The players say Western Michigan required them to get a shot by Tuesday or be removed from the team. They were denied religious exemptions.

The Michigan State worker says she has natural immunity because she had COVID-19. Her complaint seeks class-action status for other school employees previously infected with the coronavirus.

The women hired a lawyer late last week after their request for a religious exemption was denied.

Now, they’re hoping a judge will issue a temporary order to keep them on the team until a court decision is made.

“They are going to kick them off the team tomorrow (Tuesday) if they are not vaccinated,” said the attorney representing the women, David Kallman with Great Lakes Justice Center.  

The four senior players, Emily Dahl, Bailey Korhorn, Morgan Otteson and Hannah Redoute, are all in limbo. The women say they filed for a religious exemption with WMU last Wednesday and were denied. Kallman says when the women asked WMU about an appeal, they were told there is no appeal process, so they filed a lawsuit Monday.   

“They don’t want their career to end like this over a silly mandate that is not something that should be required,” Kallman said. 

The lawsuit makes three arguments against the required vaccination: that the mandate violates their freedom of religion, their right to privacy and the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory practices and policies. 

The suit says the plaintiffs “sincerely believe the Bible teaches that human being have a duty to God to live their lives according to his words.”

“The first thing to understand is under First Amendment law, a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs are theirs,” Kallman said. “They don’t have to prove that it’s proper or somebody else agrees with it or anything else.”

The suit says the women are willing to take regular COVID-19 tests and wear masks. It also points out that only athletes are required to be vaccinated.

“You’re in the dorms, and the bands and orchestra. Everywhere else where there are people all the time right on top of each other — they are not required to get a vaccine well, then why are the athletes?” Kallman said. 

WMU says it will not respond to pending litigation. But in providing background said: “Participation in intercollegiate athletics is a privilege and not a right, participation in practice and competition is at the discretion of the athletics department staff.”

The women are fighting that notion, saying this is a public university that cannot discriminate.

“It’s clear that these ladies have their sincere held beliefs, and the university should honor it,” Kallman said. 

It’s now in the judge’s hands. WMU says student-athletes will not lose scholarships due to the exemption.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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