(WXYZ) — The deadline to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for student-athletes at Western Michigan University is Tuesday. Now four WMU women's soccer players are fighting the mandate, hoping to be exempt.
"It would be very disheartening and sad to see my soccer career of 18 years end like this,” said Senior Team Captain Morgan Otteson.
Otteson, along with teammates Emily Dahl, Hannah Redoute and Bailey Korhorn, have filed a lawsuit against Western Michigan. The four players appealed the school for a religious exemption based on their Christian beliefs but were denied.
“I trust God and His creation of the human body and no matter what is surrounding it that He has dedicated his life and died for us on the cross to protect us at all costs,” Otteson said. "I understand and know that my body is a temple and He will intend to keep me safe and clean from any unclean food and injections throughout my life here on earth."
Their attorney, David Kallman, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the university, arguing the policy is in violation of their religious freedom.
“We’re arguing first amendment violations, we’re arguing 14th Amendment due process, the right to bodily integrity, the right to refuse medical treatment under the constitution,” Kallman said.
A case was also just filed against Michigan State University on behalf of 37-year-old employee Jeanna Norris, an MSU administrative associate and fiscal officer. Her lawyer, Jenin Younes, argues she should be exempt from the school's vaccine mandate because she already had COVID and tested for antibodies this month. The attorney says because she already had COVID, she likely will experience stronger symptoms from the vaccine.
“One of the rules of medical ethics is that you don't perform unnecessary medical procedures," said Younes, Litigation Counsel with the New Civil Liberties Alliance. "Not only is it unnecessary, but it actually poses a risk of harm to Ms. Norris and others like her.”
Both cases have some differences compared to a case against Indiana University and their vaccine mandate, which was rejected by the Supreme Court this month. However, Mark Dotson, Professor of Law at Western Michigan’s Cooley Law School, expects these cases to have similar outcomes.
“You have options," Dotson said as part of the legal reasoning. "If you don't like their policy then you have the right, just like you have the right to exercise your freedom of religion, you have the right to go to a different school.”
In response to the lawsuit, both schools say they don’t comment on pending litigation, however, when denying the players religious exemptions, Western Michigan wrote that: "The University has a compelling interest in taking action to avoid the significant risk posed to the intercollegiate athletic programs of a COVID-19 outbreak due to unvaccinated participants. Prohibiting unvaccinated members of the teams from engaging in practices and competition is the only effective manner of accomplishing this compelling interest."
"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," Otteson said. "If ultimately that’s how my Senior year will end then, that’s something I'm willing to step away from.”
Western Michigan says the players can still have their scholarships honored and will be able to attend school, just not participate in sports. All 4 players say they offered to wear masks and be tested weekly as part of the exemptions but were told no.