Western Michigan University Can't Force Soccer Players to Get COVID Vaccine, Judge Rules

Four women's soccer players at Western Michigan University do not have to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, validating claims made in a pending lawsuit that requiring the shot violates the athletes' constitutional religious rights.

District Judge Paul Maloney granted a temporary restraining order the day of the university's deadline for the athletes to get inoculated to participate in sports. His ruling was based on his discernment that, "WMU's vaccination requirement for student athletes is not justified by a compelling interest and is not narrowly tailored."

However, Maloney denied an earlier motion by an employee of Michigan State University challenging that school's broader mandate. The university has not yet responded to the lawsuit or the temporary restraining order.

A hearing on a temporary injunction is set for September 9.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Colleges Vaccine
A federal judge in Michigan blocked a vaccination deadline for four female soccer players at Western Michigan University who say the school's mandate violates their religious rights. Above, a sign for free COVID-19 testing and vaccines is displayed at the California State University Long Beach (CSULB) campus on August 11, 2021, in Long Beach, California PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP/Getty Images

Unlike at other Michigan universities, Western's vaccine requirement does not extend to all students and employees, though the unvaccinated do have to undergo weekly coronavirus testing. The four athletes—Emily Dahl, Hannah Redoute, Bailey Korhorn and Morgan Otteson—said they were denied religious exemptions to play without getting a dose.

"Our clients are grateful that the Court has recognized they have a strong case for a religious exemption from this vaccine requirement," their attorney, David Kallman, said in a statement. "Our clients are thrilled that they can continue to be part of their soccer team, be with their teammates and compete for WMU at the highest level in a safe manner."

A spokeswoman for the Kalamazoo-based school said it does not comment on ongoing litigation.

In a separate case, the judge said a Michigan State supervisory administrative associate and fiscal officer failed to show she is substantially likely to succeed on the merits. He cited federal rulings in favor of Indiana University's vaccine mandate and said Jeanna Norris—who had COVID-19 last year—is an at-will employee with no "constitutionally protected property interest in her employment position."

She is unlikely to show that MSU's requirement is not "rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest, i.e., the health and safety of the public," Maloney wrote.

Also Tuesday, the leaders of two public health associations issued an open letter urging community leaders to support local health officers who have been threatened for issuing orders to curb COVID-19 such as countywide school masking requirements. A Grand Blanc woman was charged last week with threatening to kill two Genesee County health officials.

"Despite their dedication and profound sense of duty to protect the public, medical and administrative health officials have been physically threatened and politically scapegoated," wrote Drs. Ruta Sharangpani and William Nettleton, the president and past president of the Michigan Association of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, and Norm Hess, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.

They condemned physical threats and intimidation.

"The pandemic has been a difficult time for everyone. Stress, anxiety, fear, misinformation and distrust contribute to inappropriate behavior," they said. "We call on community leaders to stand up for your public health officials and help encourage productive community conversations.