Three former NBA umpires sued the league in the Southern District of New York on Saturday, claiming the NBA violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and NY human rights laws and of NYC by rejecting their requests for religious exemption from taking a COVID-19 vaccine. Mark Ayotte, Ken Mauer and Jason Phillips, who collectively had more than 70 years of experience in arbitration, are demanding a jury trial. They are seeking more than $100,000 in damages that would reflect front and back payments as well as compensation for “damage to reputation and for emotional pain and suffering.”
In a statement to Sportico, an NBA spokesperson said, “We are reviewing the complaint.”
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The three arbitrators, who are represented by New York attorney Sheldon Karasik, oppose vaccination since fetal cell lines – which are described as “cells grown in a laboratory from aborted fetal cells collected a generations” – were used to develop the Moderna and Pfizer MRNA vaccines and to produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
In 2021, the NBA and the referees’ union agreed that referees must be vaccinated or face suspension and possible firing. The policy allowed arbitrators to request an exemption, including one for sincere religious belief.
The lawsuit says Ayotte, a lifelong Catholic, met with two NBA attorneys on Sept. 17, 2021, for approximately half an hour. As the complaint says, the lawyers “questioned” him. During the meeting, Ayotte “admitted that he was not aware of the Pope’s directives regarding Covid-19 vaccines”.
In December 2020, Pope Francis endorsed a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which concluded that “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their process of research and production”. The statement adds that the vaccines “can be used in good conscience with the certainty that the use of such vaccines does not constitute a formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in the production of the vaccines are derived”.
Despite the pope’s position, Ayotte was not convinced. “I know the Church’s position on abortion,” he told the NBA, according to the complaint. Ayotte reiterated that he sincerely opposes vaccines on the grounds “that abortion is wrong.” Ayotte was suspended and then fired.
Mauer, who was raised Catholic and attended church on Sundays, has been aware of the pope’s position but had “difficulty accepting the pope’s position in promoting this vaccine”. In fact, Mauer’s opposition led him to “attend different denominations from week to week,” eventually landing with him joining the Eagle Brook Evangelical Baptist megachurch community.
Mauer requested an NBA exemption on two grounds. First, he said that vaccines “use the aborted fetus problem”, which contradicts his “belief that life begins at conception”. Second, Mauer said vaccines are “unnatural and will pollute my body forever with synthetic mRNA”, contradicting his belief that “God’s name is on every human chromosome”. Mauer also submitted a letter from Jason Strand, a senior pastor at Eagle Brook Church. Strand wrote: “Ken thinks if he accepted the Covid hit he would be in sin.”
During Mauer’s meeting with NBA attorneys — Mauer likened it to an “inquisition” — the complaint claims he was questioned about his medical history. Mauer acknowledged taking hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as prophylactic measures against COVID-19. The lawsuit says NBA attorneys insisted that Mauer taking the drugs “logically contradicts his stated belief that the holidays ‘pollute’ the human body.” The NBA denied Mauer’s request and then let him go.
Phillips, described as a “practicing Baptist”, also had his application denied and was also terminated.
NBA attorneys will respond to the complaint and seek dismissal. The league will likely object to the factual assertions mentioned in the complaint and offer a different set of facts. The NBA could insist that the referee’s objections are not sufficiently religious in nature and are instead motivated primarily by health, political, ideological or other interests that do not warrant a waiver.
Additionally, the league could argue that granting a request would have placed an undue hardship on league operations, given the referees’ close physical contact with players, coaches and other referees. The NBA can also point out that the referees’ own union agreed to the policy, which granted discretion to the NBA.
In August, a federal court in Pennsylvania dismissed a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by Geisinger Clinic employees who objected to their employer’s policy requiring (among other things) the COVID-19 vaccine in the absence of religious or medical exemption. One employee wrote, “The Bible says man has free will and I am using my God-given free will to reject the vaccine. I trust my own immune system and my own body’s ability to heal itself. Judge Matthew Brann sided with the employer, finding that the employees had raised “anti-vaccine hocus-pocus” and that their objections had more to do with their medical than religious beliefs.
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