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Judge blocks Western Michigan’s vaccine mandate for athletes

Soccer balls
Peter Dutton
Creative Commons
Soccer balls

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked Western Michigan University from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine requirement against four female soccer players, ruling they are likely to prevail on claims it violates their constitutional religious rights.

District Judge Paul Maloney in Grand Rapids, however, denied a motion by an employee who challenged Michigan State University’s broader vaccination mandate.

He issued the temporary restraining order on the day of Western’s deadline for athletes to get an initial shot or be unable to practice or compete. He said while the university had not had an opportunity to respond to the lawsuit that was filed Monday, the mandate is subject to strict scrutiny because it burdens the free exercise of religion.

“WMU’s vaccination requirement for student athletes is not justified by a compelling interest and is not narrowly tailored,” Maloney wrote.

He scheduled a hearing on a temporary injunction for Sept. 9.

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. He cited federal rulings in favor of Indiana University’s vaccine mandate and said Jeanna Norris — who said the vaccine is unnecessary because she 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 the 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 public health associations issued an open letter urging community leaders to support local health officers who have been threatened for issuing countywide school masking requirements. A Grand Blanc woman was charged last week with threatening to kill Genesee County 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.