News Story

MSU employees who object to vaccine mandate present case to U.S. Court of Appeals

Three employees faced discipline for refusing a COVID shot

Three women who work or worked at Michigan State University and ran afoul of its COVID vaccine mandate had another day in court Dec. 7, this time before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It was the second stop for them, after the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan had ruled against the trio.

The suit was brought by Jeanna Norris, Kraig Ehm and D’Ann Rohrer, who all worked at the university in 2021. MSU’s vaccine mandate violates their constitutional right to bodily autonomy and is thus unlawful, they say. The three are represented by the National Civil Liberties Alliance, which also says that the women’s employment was conditioned on unnecessary medical treatment. The suit adds that the university’s demand violates the right to informed consent.

Read more about the case: Norris vs. Michigan State University

In July 2021, MSU announced a vaccine mandate for the fall term. (It has continued its vaccine mandate into the 2022-23 school year, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that vaccination does not prevent transmission and that natural immunity should be considered as an alternative.)

Norris asked for an exemption on the grounds of natural immunity, saying she already had COVID-19. The university denied her request. She asked for and obtained a religious exemption on Nov. 18, 2021. Rohrer, however, was fired on Nov. 3, 2021, and Ehm was placed on unpaid leave, according to court records.

After the Dec. 7 oral arguments, Jenin Younes, litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance, said: “The judges appeared interested in the question of whether MSU had a rational basis for the vaccine mandate and whether that question ought to have been decided at the motion to dismiss stage.”

The alliance said in a court filing of Sept. 7 that MSU had failed the rational basis test, which is the lowest hurdle a unit of government must pass to withstand a claim that it has violated a constitutional right. The university, the alliance said, had not established that vaccinating people who had natural immunity provides extra immunity to others.

When CapCon asked the university in September why it was keeping its mandate despite the changed CDC guidance, Dan Olsen, deputy spokesperson said the requirement “protected the community.”

Olsen told CapCon:

The university will continue with its vaccination and booster mandate for students, faculty and staff. Results from a recent study involving MSU researchers indicates (sic) colleges and universities with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement significantly cut infection rates and deaths last year. It is clear our COVID-19 mitigation efforts have worked and have allowed the university to continue in-person classes and activities safely while also protecting our community.

CapCon asked Olsen if MSU would reconsider its position.

Olsen replied: “MSU continues to have a vaccination requirement at this time. As I shared with you previously, we understand there are instances where someone may not be able to be vaccinated because of certain medical or religious reasons. Students, faculty and staff are able to request those exemptions online.”

The court has yet to issue a ruling.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.