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Western Michigan University athletes among those suing over vaccine rules

More than a hundred parents and Genesee County residents listen to embattled county medical health officer Dr. Pamela Hackert as she answers critics of her K-6 school mask mandate on Monday at the county administration building in downtown Flint, saying her directive will help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 in the county despite continued vocal opposition. (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP)

By DAVID EGGERT

Associated Press

LANSING — 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 Kornhorn 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.

More than a hundred parents and Genesee County residents listen to embattled county medical health officer Dr. Pamela Hackert as she answers critics of her K-6 school mask mandate on Monday at the county administration building in downtown Flint, saying her directive will help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 in the county despite continued vocal opposition. (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP)