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Former WSU football coach Nick Rolovich asks for vaccine-related firing lawsuit to proceed

By Kip Hill, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 12, 2023, 8:20am

SPOKANE — Former Washington State University football coach Nick Rolovich was in a Spokane courtroom Thursday, asking a federal judge to allow his case to continue against his former employer for firing him after his refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Seated behind him was former Gonzaga University and Utah Jazz star John Stockton, who lost his season tickets to his alma mater for refusing to comply with public health measures during the pandemic, and Spokane Catholic Bishop Thomas Daly. Stockton said he’d reached out to Rolovich, who was fired along with four assistant coaches in October 2021, and was present to show his support for the former coach. He noted that his own skepticism about the vaccine’s effectiveness isn’t pertinent to the Rolovich case.

“That’s a whole different issue,” Stockton said after the hearing. “The law’s a different game.”

Rolovich contends that WSU and Athletic Director Patrick Chun fired him without just cause, which under his contract should have entitled him to 60% of the remaining base salary on his $2 million deal that was supposed to run through June 2025. Rolovich says he should have been provided a religious exemption to a law requiring state employees to get the vaccine. The university contends that Rolovich did not raise religious concerns about the vaccine’s development until a deadline approached for him to get the shots, and that WSU’s denial of his exemption was based on its inability to accommodate his coaching under pandemic-related guidelines and skepticism about the sincerity of his beliefs.

Zach Pekelis, an attorney for Chun and WSU, told U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice that Rolovich’s justifications for refusing to get the vaccine had been “a moving target” since summer 2021, when questions began to swirl about the state mandate and his future with the team. Pekelis, in filings to the court and in oral argument Thursday, accused Rolovich of employing “pseudo-scientific skepticism” in his opposition to the mandate and argued the case should be thrown out, instead of moving forward.

“The beliefs have kind of shifted over time,” Pekelis said.

Pekelis noted that there’d been hundreds of challenges to vaccine mandates in the federal courts, and that they’d largely been unsuccessful. That included a ruling by Rice in November 2021 denying a request by a couple dozen Spokane firefighters who refused the vaccine but wanted their jobs back with the city.

Brian Fahling, representing Rolovich, said his client had sincere religious beliefs based in Catholicism that called for him to act on his conscience and his moral convictions. Those beliefs were found to be credible following a double-blind review by the university’s human resources department, Fahling said, and that efforts by Chun to get Rolovich vaccinated prior to the 2021 season amounted to coercion.

“Mr. Rolovich lost the job of his dreams, and it was based in our estimation on a fundamentally wrong basis,” Fahling told Rice.

Daly, who shared a handshake with Rolovich after the hearing, said his relationship with the coach goes back decades, when he was the priest at Rolovich’s church in California. He attended Thursday’s hearing in support of Rolovich’s Catholic faith, he said.

“When they called into question his Catholic faith early on, I wrote a letter saying I’ve known him, this is not something that he just discovered,” Daly said after the hearing. He added that Rolovich had consulted with him as he weighed the decision whether to seek vaccination.

Stockton said he believed in protecting the right of people to control what is put in their bodies, and that he applauded Rolovich for standing up for his principles.

Rolovich declined to comment after the hearing. Rice said he would file a written order with his decision about whether the discrimination lawsuit will proceed.