LANSING, Mich. (AP) — 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 - Emily Dahl, Hannah Redoute, Bailey Korhorn, and Morgan Otterson - said in mid-August, Western Michigan required them to get a shot by Tuesday or be removed from the team. They were denied religious exemptions.
“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.
In the lawsuit, Otteson said God has given her the “strength to naturally fight off any illnesses” and in God’s eyes her body is a “temple” that is intended to keep clean from any unclean food or injections.
“I trust God and his creation of the human body and no matter what is surrounding it,” said Otteson in an interview. “I’m going to do everything I can to fight and stand up for my religious beliefs and what I stand for and believe in. If ultimately that’s how my senior year will end, then that’s something i'm willing to step away from.”
Otteson’s teammates made similar claims in their applications. One objected to “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.”
The policy also applies to coaches and athletic staff. There is no COVID-19 vaccine requirement for the general student body at the university.
Western Michigan said it has a “compelling interest” in taking action to avoid the “significant risk” posed by those unvaccinated. It added participation in intercollegiate athletics is viewed as a privilege and not a right.
Mark Dotson, a professor at Cooley Law School, said the suit’s religious claims differ from other ones brought forth so far, but he believes the mandate will be backed as long as the university neutrally applied it. Prior cases at the federal and state level give broad authority to organizations to implement policies that protect the health and safety of people.
“I would predict that these policies, because they’re general in their application, they don’t create a burden specifically on religion but on everybody else that happens to be subject to the policy… it will probably be upheld,” Dotson said.