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'Lawyer me to death': NBA drags out COVID vaccine mandate suit to bleed fired refs dry, they say

Former Minnesota GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen promotes legal fundraiser for 36-year NBA veteran Kenny Mauer. League "inquisition" resembles U.S. Coast Guard script for chaplains.

Published: October 18, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: October 19, 2023 11:16am

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention struggles to convince Americans to repeatedly take a therapeutic that offers short-lived protection against an increasingly mild coronavirus, some dissenters to COVID-19 policies are still fighting for their livelihoods.

Former NBA referee Kenny Mauer, a familiar face in televised games since the 1980s, is raising money to fund his lawsuit with peers against the league for suspending, then firing them after denying religious exemptions from its vaccine mandate.

The litigation describes an "inquisition" that resembles the U.S. Coast Guard script for chaplains interviewing service members who sought religious exemptions. The NBA and Coast Guard seek to overcome objections, based on the use of aborted fetus cell lines in the development of COVID vaccines, by getting the requesters to admit they don't consistently follow their convictions.

League lawyers "simply interrogated my clients as if they were Torquemada in the [Spanish] Inquisition, and determined 'Oh, [their religious beliefs are] not really sincerely held,'" the referees' lawyer, Sheldon Karasik, told Newsmax.

The NBA is a "state actor" given its "direct entwinement" and "symbiotic relationship" with the U.S. military, according to the lawsuit, which notes the latter's near-total rejection of religious exemptions for service members before federal law ended its mandate.

Not only did the league refuse to rehire the referees when their union secured a ban on vaccine mandates, a year after the players' union rejected a mandate, it froze their pensions in an "unprecedented move," Mauer says in a video accompanying the 36-year veteran's GiveSendGo crowdfunding campaign.

The pension freeze is making it hard to sustain the 11-month-old lawsuit by "multi-denominational Christian" Mauer, Catholic Mark Ayotte and Baptist Jason Phillips, who left the court after 19 years to lead the Replay Center in 2019-2020. It's not clear whether the others have fundraisers, and Karasik said he couldn't answer questions until Friday.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Lehrburger on Sept. 11 approved the NBA's motion to extend the time for legal discovery, noting that Karasik didn't oppose it but has "expressed concern about Defendants' efforts, or lack thereof, in moving the case forward."

The parties now have until March 20 to complete expert discovery.

"The NBA is trying to lawyer me to death and basically silence anyone who dares to speak out against them," Mauer says in the video. "I don't even recognize the league I used to refer to as family."

The campaign as of Wednesday has raised about $10,000.

Fellow Minnesotan and former GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen promoted Mauer's campaign to Jensen's email list Tuesday.

"This corporate decision was a prime example of heavy-handedness that threatens the core principles of our Republic," the family physician said. Jensen's GiveSendGo campaign for his own litigation is less than $20,000 from its $200,000 goal.

Jensen filed state and federal lawsuits against the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice and Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison for repeated medical license investigations, based on his COVID statements, in which Ellison was allegedly "a driving force."

Despite their union rejecting a vaccine mandate, NBA players faced challenges at the time. 

The Brooklyn Nets benched unvaccinated Kyrie Irving two years ago because of New York City's private-sector worker vaccine mandate, which didn't apply to visiting players or ticketholders in Barclays Center. His then-teammate Kevin Durant criticized Mayor Eric Adams for the continuing mandate in March 2022, after the Nets started letting Irving play road games.

At press conferences, star players Bradley Beal and Jonathan Isaac challenged the scientific basis for mandates, noting the vaccine didn't stop transmission and had higher adverse event rates in their age group.

Without mandates to boost numbers, just 2% of Americans – 7 million – have received an updated COVID vaccine since it was approved about a month ago, the Department of Health and Human Services said last week.

The widespread disinterest in its vaccine and rebound-prone antiviral Paxlovid forced Pfizer to slash its earnings forecast and pledge $3.5 billion in cost-cutting. CEO Albert Bourla blamed both "COVID fatigue" and "a peak of anti-vaccination rhetoric" in an investor call Monday, MarketWatch reported. 

The referees' lawsuit, last amended in March, alleges "willful" federal violations of the Constitution, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and New York sate and New York City human rights laws. They seek "front and back pay" as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

The NBA was able to operate without a COVID vaccine in the first full season after the pandemic's emergence, it says. The league only won over the referees' union to a mandate in 2021-2022 by offering religious exemptions, which ensured "little internal resistance and lowered the risk of a legal challenge."

Yet its in-house counsel Neal Stern and Melissa Dean interviewed the plaintiffs "in an adversarial manner, without counsel present," setting such a high standard for exemption that "[a]pparently, zero NBA referees or replay center personnel" were approved, the suit says. 

They claimed "small, unvaccinated children might die" if Ayotte didn't get jabbed and selectively quoted a Vatican statement, ignoring its description of vaccines developed from aborted fetuses as "cooperation in evil" and confirmation that vaccination is "not, as a rule, a moral obligation."

The league determined Ayotte was not "credible with respect to his understanding of the Vatican’s position."

Mauer's Baptist pastor attested the "sincerity" of the referee's request to the league, but Stern and Dean again accused Mauer of endangering children, according to the suit.

By admitting he took hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin against COVID, Mauer also contradicted his other claim that the vaccine would "pollute" his body with "synthetic mRNA," the lawyers argued.

They said he could have taken the non-mRNA Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is actually "the most objectionable" because aborted fetus-derived cell lines are used to produce them, the suit argues. The mandate ultimately proved fruitless because nine in 10 referees that season – all "fully vaccinated" – tested positive for COVID.

Phillips accused the league of falsely claiming "neither your pastor nor your church objected" to COVID vaccines, when the opposition was "well-documented" in his pastor's letter. The league lawyers didn't even bring it up in his interview, where they resisted his questions about why the NBA couldn't continue its 2020-2021 protocols, the suit says.