MSU, WMU vaccine requirements challenged in court

Kim Kozlowski Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Four soccer players at Western Michigan University and an employee of Michigan State University are challenging their schools' COVID-19 vaccine policies, contending they're unconstitutional in new federal lawsuits.

Emily Dahl, Hannah Redoute, Bailey Korhorn and Morgan Otteson filed their suit on Monday against Western University Michigan, university President Edward Montgomery and its athletic director, Kathy Beauregard. They said the university's requirement that student athletes get vaccinated "seeks to override" their "sincerely held religious beliefs and viewpoint and discriminates against them on the basis of their religion."

"Defendants’ policies violate the First Amendment by punishing students who

exercise their religious beliefs in connection with their personal medical decisions," according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for Michigan's Western District.

For the rest of the student body, Western Michigan is requiring regular testing of those who are unvaccinated. The four soccer players' lawyers are from the nonprofit Great Lakes Justice Center.

University spokeswoman Paula Davis said Western Michigan wouldn't comment on pending litigation.

In a separate case,Jeanna Norris, a 37-year-old MSU administrative associate and fiscal officer, sued university President Samuel Stanley and the Board of Trustees, arguing that she has natural immunity after recovering from COVID-19 late last year.  Her immunoligist, Hooman Noorchashm, has advised her that it is medically unnecessary to undergo a vaccination, the lawsuit said.

"If Plaintiff follows her doctor’s advice and elects not to take the vaccine, she faces adverse disciplinary consequences," according to the suit that was filed in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids. "In short, the Directive is unmistakably coercive and cannot reasonably be considered anything other than an unlawful mandate."

Michigan State University is being sued by a university employee for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students and workers.

"Furthermore, it represents an unconstitutional condition being applied to Plaintiff’s constitutional and statutory rights to bodily integrity and informed consent, respectively."

Norris is being represented by the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonprofit civil rights group based in Washingon, D.C. NCLA filed the complaint, which seeks class-action certification and a preliminary injunction. 

MSU deputy spokesman Dan Olsen said the university is not commenting on pending legislation at this time.

MSU was among the first Michigan public universities to announce a vaccine requirement for students, faculty and staff on July 31 and required it by this Tuesday unless the individual sought an exemption based on medical or religious reasons. MSU is now among six other universities with vaccine mandates, including the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint; Wayne State, Grand Valley State and Oakland universities.

A ruling last month by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel said  public and private entities can require that employees receive one of the vaccines.

"The opinion is silent on preemption, however," the lawsuit says.

Classes at Michigan State and Western Michigan begin Wednesday.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com