Western Michigan University is barred from kicking four Christian athletes off the women’s soccer team for refusing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, under a temporary restraining order issued Tuesday by a U.S. District judge in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Judge Paul L. Maloney granted the emergency order sought by two Catholic and two Protestant athletes, who were scheduled to be permanently removed from the Western Michigan University Broncos team on Aug. 31 for failing to comply with the university’s new vaccine mandate. Maloney ruled the women have a likelihood of success on the merits in their federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the vaccine mandate for student athletes. He set a Sept. 9 date for a court hearing on a preliminary injunction.
The restraining order came in the nick of time for the athletes, who are scheduled to play against Indiana University at 7 p.m. Thursday in Bloomington, Ind. Western Michigan began its 2021 soccer season Aug. 19 and owns a 2-2 record. The plaintiff athletes include Catholics Emily Dahl of Avon, Ohio, and Hannah Redoute of Shelby Township, Mich., and Protestants Bailey Korhorn and Morgan Otteson of Grand Rapids, Mich.
“We’re very pleased for our clients, because now they’re not kicked off their team and they can keep playing soccer,” said David A. Kallman, senior legal counsel for the Great Lakes Justice Center, which represents the women. “They were at practice tonight and they have a game tomorrow or the next day. They’re ready to move ahead and they are very happy.”
On Aug. 30, the women filed a civil-rights lawsuit against Western Michigan University in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. The women, all scholarship athletes on the school’s NCAA Division I soccer team, filed for religious exemptions from the school’s requirement that all athletes get the COVID-19 vaccine. The exemptions were denied. Under university policy, the women were to be kicked off the team if they did not get vaccinated by Aug. 31.
“WMU should acknowledge and support our clients’ sincere religious beliefs and personal medical decisions,” Kallman said in an earlier statement. “The science and data does not support this action, or treating the unvaccinated as second-class citizens.” The lawsuit, Emily Dahl, et al v. The Board of Trustees of Western Michigan University, et al, also names Western Michigan President Edward Montgomery and Athletic Director Kathy Beauregard as defendants.
The suit alleges the Kalamazoo-based university’s COVID-19 vaccine policy violates the students’ constitutional rights to free exercise of religion, privacy, bodily integrity and the ability to make their own medical decisions. It alleges violations of those same tenets as protected in federal statute and Michigan state law. Western Michigan adopted a policy on Aug. 12 requiring all student athletes be vaccinated against the SARS CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The general population at 20,500-student Western Michigan is not subject to the vaccine mandate.
According to the suit, on Aug. 24 the athletes were offered opportunity to file for a religious accommodation in order to refuse the COVID jab. All four plaintiffs filed the accommodation form with the Western Michigan athletic department, each attaching a statement explaining why their sincerely held religious beliefs prevent them from taking the COVID shot. The exemptions were denied on Aug. 25 for three of the players, with a denial for the fourth coming on Aug. 30.
The students asked the university to provide more information on the denials. They received the following statement, according to the lawsuit: “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, and prohibiting unvaccinated members of the teams from engaging in practices and competition is the only effective manner of accomplishing this compelling interest.”
The athletes volunteered to undergo regular COVID testing and to wear masks, but these steps were considered insufficient by the university, Kallman said. Under Judge Maloney’s restraining order, the university can require regular testing of the athletes, and the wearing of face masks.
In her request for the religious exemption, Redoute decried the use of cells taken from aborted children for use in the testing of some vaccines. “I have a right to object regarding what is put into my body,” said Redoute, a parishioner at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Shelby Township, Mich. Use of the vaccines “would be a violation of my faith that opposes abortion,” she said. “Under the teachings that I follow, I am religiously and morally bound.”
Dahl said she trusts that God will protect her. “I am happy that so many high-risk individuals have felt comfort in the new vaccines,” said Dahl, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Avon, Ohio. “I, however, trust in the Lord that He will keep me strong, heal me and prevent me from Covid-19 as long as I abide by His word, pray and trust in Him.”
Dahl included a letter from her pastor, Father Vincent Hawk, who wrote that while the Catholic Church has not prohibited the vaccines, and the Holy See has even encouraged Catholics to consider the shot, the Church “also upholds the rights of conscience and guards against forcing any person to act against their conscience.”
The Western Michigan lawsuit is the latest salvo in a war on religious liberty spawned by the rise of the Wuhan coronavirus that first appeared in the United States in early 2020. In the 19 months since, the faithful took to state and federal courts to strike down COVID church-closure orders that denied the Eucharist to millions of Americans and threatened to shutter Catholic schools.
Recently, Catholics have faced contradictory approaches from the Church hierarchy on COVID vaccines, with some bishops claiming there are no religious grounds to oppose taking the jab, and others strongly opposed to any vaccines that utilize cells from aborted children during testing or development. Some prelates have directed their priests not to issue individual letters in support of conscientious exemptions.
Recent comments from some U.S. bishops have attempted to strike a balance between Catholics doing their part to prevent spread of COVID and respecting those who refuse the shots on moral grounds. Wisconsin’s five Catholic bishops issued an advisory on Aug. 20 that emphasized the importance of conscience.
“Nobody should violate the sanctity of conscience by forcing a person to do something contrary to his or her conscience,” read the statement, issued by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. “There are many health or ethical reasons why a person may refuse COVID-19 vaccination. We understand the urgency of this pandemic and the frustration some may experience because of the number of unvaccinated people; but even when someone’s decision may look to others as erroneous, conscience does not lose its dignity.”
The decision to forego the COVID vaccine must be balanced with “other scientifically recommended means of avoiding infection and contagion: face-coverings, social distancing, hand sanitizing, periodic testing, and quarantine,” read the statement, signed by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee, Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison, Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Bishop William P. Callahan of La Crosse, and Bishop James P. Powers of Superior.
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., chairman of the pro-life committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said taking the COVID vaccine can be an act of love in supporting the common good and preventing disease, but respect for conscience is also critical.
“The natural law requires all of us to discern carefully right from wrong in conscience as well as to pursue the common good,” Naumann said in a statement released Aug. 27. “A society that fails to respect the rights of conscience lacks a key element of the common good. The foundational human rights instrument, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asserts: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’”
The Charlotte Lozier Institute reports that of the major COVID vaccines developed under emergency authorization in the United States, those from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna used cell lines derived from abortions in some of the confirmatory lab testing. United States bishops have said those shots are morally permissible because of the remoteness of material cooperation in the evil of abortion. Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca used abortion-derived cell lines in their vaccine development and/or production, something much more morally problematic for Catholics.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center said it does not support COVID vaccine mandates and believes businesses or organizations that have such policies must respect the rights of conscience.
“The best ethical decision-making occurs when individuals have sufficient information for discernment and are able to reflect without undue external pressures placed on them,” the NCBC said in a statement updated on Aug. 23. “Mandates, by their very nature, exert pressure that can be severe if employment or the ability to further one’s education are threatened. …Safeguarding the appropriate judgments of conscience of all individuals affiliated with the institution helps establish trust and avoid undue pressure during the important and personal process of deciding about appropriate medical care and serving the common good.”
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