Musicians Sue North Carolina Symphony Over COVID Vaccine Mandate Controversy

Tom Ozimek
By Tom Ozimek
September 1, 2023Vaccines
Musicians Sue North Carolina Symphony Over COVID Vaccine Mandate Controversy
A nurse prepares a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Hartford, Conn., on Jan. 6, 2022. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

In a brewing legal showdown, three musicians have taken the North Carolina State Symphony to federal court over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, accusing the Symphony of violating the musicians’ religious freedom by groundlessly rejecting their religious exemption requests.

The musicians—Chris Caudill, Rachel Niketopoulos, and Dovid Friedlander—alleged in a complaint (pdf) filed on Aug. 31 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina that the North Carolina State Symphony abused its authority to “wreck” their careers when it fired them for refusing the vaccine.

In the summer of 2021, the North Carolina State Symphony implemented a vaccine mandate, requiring all musicians to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Citing their sincerely held religious beliefs, the three musicians submitted requests for exemptions, expressing their willingness to comply with additional safety measures, including regular testing.

Mr. Friedlander is Jewish and believes his “body is a temple” that vaccines in general defile and so “he conscientiously avoids medicine and vaccines in general,” per the complaint.

Mr. Caudill and Ms. Niketopoulos are both Buddhist and the complaint said that neither of them could take any of the available COVID-19 vaccines without violating their Buddhist faith “because the vaccines had been tested on animals and cell lines from aborted fetal cell were used in testing / production of the vaccines.”

The musicians said they didn’t ask for any special treatment or a blanket exemption.

“They were all ready, willing, and able to take reasonable measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including by engaging in periodic testing, masking, and physical distancing,” the complaint reads.

Scientific studies cited in the complaint show that, technically, the Symphony could have accommodated their religious faith exemption requests while allowing them to play.

Religious Exemptions Denied

The musicians believed their requests would be granted, given what they said was their long-standing commitment to the Symphony and its audience, and their conviction that the Symphony’s religious accommodation policy was genuine.

“Despite the fact the Policy specifically contemplated religious accommodations from the vaccine mandate, the Symphony attempted to deter employees from seeking religious exemptions,” attorneys for the trio wrote.

To the astonishment of the three musicians, their religious exemption requests were primarily denied and later the Symphony’s CEO, Sandi MacDonald, placed them on unpaid leave and ultimately terminated their employment.

The complaint states that the Symphony denied the exemptions for two reasons—insufficient information on the forms to qualify for a religious exemption and that granting the requests would present an “undue hardship” on the Symphony.

Lawyers for the trio said the first objection was misplaced.

“Plaintiffs explained their religious beliefs and related objections to the COVID-19 vaccines in sufficient detail to establish that their objections were both based on religion and sincerely held,” the attorneys wrote in the complaint.

“But the Plaintiffs got the message—Defendants did not actually want more information. Instead, Ms. Macdonald was casting doubt on whether Plaintiffs even held their religious convictions in the first place,” the complaint reads.

‘Culture of Vaccination’

Attorneys for the trio said that the reason the Symphony denied the religious accommodation requests wasn’t because there weren’t reasonable mitigation measures—like masking and physical distancing—available.

“Rather, as Ms. Macdonald later admitted, she wanted to promote a ‘culture’ of vaccination at the Symphony,” the complaint reads.

After first being placed on unpaid leave with health benefits, they were fired.

The complaint says that the abrupt decision to terminate the musicians left them facing devastating financial, professional, and emotional consequences.

For more than fifteen years, the trio had been a key part of the Symphony, inspiring audiences with their music, per the complaint.

They’re seeking damages and want to be reinstated in their jobs.

The Symphony did not immediately return a request for comment from The Epoch Times.

‘Politically Motivated Pirouette’

The case raises key questions about the balance between public health measures and religious liberties.

The plaintiffs argue in the complaint that government actors (the Symphony is affiliated with a state agency) cannot declare a “culture” that discriminates on the basis of religious beliefs.

What makes this case even more complex is the Symphony’s apparent motive for lifting its COVID-19 vaccine mandate in August 2023.

After the Symphony fired the three musicians, it canceled the COVID-19 mandate in what the complaint said was a “politically motivated pirouette.”

In an email cited in the complaint, Ms. Macdonald suggested that the decision was driven by political and financial considerations. The Symphony aimed to secure funding from the North Carolina Legislature and decided to end the mandate to avoid jeopardizing its relationships with the legislative body.

“In short, the Symphony lifted the vaccine mandate to get more money from taxpayers,” the complaint reads.

There have been a number of other lawsuits brought by former employees fired for refusing COVID-19 vaccines.

One of these involved seven former Disney employees, who said they were unlawfully fired for refusing COVID-19 vaccines and failing to adhere to masking policies.

Meanwhile, rumors abound of a new round of COVID-19 restrictions in light of a new variant spreading, which is being met with a growing number of calls for open refusal to obey.

From The Epoch Times

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