Three former NBA referees 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 and NYC’s human rights laws in rejecting their requests for a religious exemption from taking a COVID-19 vaccine. Mark Ayotte, Ken Mauer and Jason Phillips, who collectively had more than 70 years of experience refereeing, demand a jury trial. They seek more than $100,000 in damages that would reflect front and back pay as well as compensation for “reputational damages and for emotional pain and suffering.”
In a statement to Sportico, an NBA spokesperson said, “We are in the process of reviewing the complaint.”
The three referees, who are represented by New York attorney Sheldon Karasik, object to being vaccinated since fetal cell lines—which are described as “cells grown in a laboratory based on aborted fetal cells collected generations ago”—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 had to be vaccinated or face a suspension and eventual termination. The policy permitted referees to request an exemption, including one for a sincerely held religious belief.
The complaint says that Ayotte, a lifelong Catholic, met with two NBA attorneys on Sept. 17, 2021, for about a half hour. As the complaint tells it, the attorneys “interrogated” him. During the meeting Ayotte “admitted that he was not up-to-date on the Pope’s guidance regarding Covid-19 vaccines.”
In December 2020, Pope Francis approved a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which found “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” The statement added that vaccines “can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.”
Despite the Pope’s position, Ayotte wasn’t persuaded. “I know what the Church’s position on abortion is,” he told the NBA, according to the complaint. Ayotte reiterated that he genuinely opposed the vaccines on the basis “that abortion is wrong.” Ayotte was suspended and then terminated.
Mauer, who was raised Catholic and attended church on Sundays, was aware of the Pope’s position but had a “difficult time accepting the Pope’s stance 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 Baptist Evangelical Eagle Brook megachurch community.
Mauer sought an exemption from the NBA on two grounds. First, he said the vaccines “utilize aborted fetal issue,” which conflicts with his “belief that life begins at conception.” Second, Mauer said the vaccines are “unnatural and will pollute my body forever with synthetic mRNA,” which conflicts with 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 believes that if he were to accept the Covid shot, he would be in sin.”
During Mauer’s meeting with NBA attorneys—Mauer likened it to an “inquisition”—the complaint claims he was asked about his medical history. Mauer acknowledged taking Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin as prophylactic measures against COVID-19. The complaint says that NBA attorneys insisted that Mauer taking those drugs “logically conflicts with his stated belief that vacation ‘polluted’ the human body.” The NBA rejected Mauer’s request and later let him go.
Phillips, described as a “practicing Baptist,” also saw his request rejected and was terminated as well.
Attorneys for the NBA will answer the complaint and seek its dismissal. The league will likely object to the factual assertions mentioned in the complaint and offer a different set of facts. The NBA might insist the referee’s objections are not sufficiently religious in nature and are instead motivated mainly by health, political, ideological or other interests that do not justify an exemption.
Further, the league might argue granting a request would have posed an undue hardship on league operations, given the close physical contact of referees with players, coaches and other referees. The NBA can also point out that the referees’ own union agreed to the policy, which accorded 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 absent a religious or medical exemption. One employee wrote “the Bible says that man has free will and I am using my free will, granted to me by God, to reject the vaccine. I have faith in my own immune system and the ability for my own body to heal itself.” Judge Matthew Brann sided with the employer, finding the employees had raised “anti-vaccine hocus-pocus” and their objections were more about their medical beliefs than religious ones.