Three former NC Symphony musicians sue orchestra over COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Three former members of the N.C. Symphony Orchestra have filed a federal lawsuit that claims they were fired from the orchestra in 2022 because they refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 on religious grounds.

The three musicians — two French horn players and a violinist — sued the symphony, its president and CEO and the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which manages the orchestra. The suit was filed Thursday by The Center for American Liberty, a Pittsburgh nonprofit dedicated to free speech rights and civil liberties.

The suit says all musicians in the Raleigh-based orchestra were told in the summer of 2021 that they must get vaccinated against COVID-19 to continue performing. Violinist Dovid Friedlander is Jewish, and horn players Chris Caudill and Rachel Niketopoulos, a married couple, are Buddhists.

All three decided they “could not receive a COVID-19 vaccine without compromising their faith,” according to the lawsuit, and “submitted religious accommodation requests and expected they would be quickly granted.”

Instead, the suit says, symphony president and CEO Sandi Macdonald placed the musicians on unpaid leave and eventually fired them.

The suit claims the symphony, Macdonald and the state discriminated against the three musicians and violated the First Amendment and Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“The Constitution guarantees religious freedom,” Harmeet Dhillon, founder and CEO of the Center for American Liberty, said in a written statement. “But if governmental agencies can force Americans to choose between continued employment and fidelity to religious beliefs, our most basic liberties are in jeopardy.”

A spokeswoman for the N.C. Symphony Orchestra said it will contest the lawsuit.

“Since the pandemic began, our priority has been to protect the health and safety of our musicians and staff, consistent with federal and state health guidelines and informed by the policies of other symphonies,” Linda Charlton, vice president for marketing and audience engagement, wrote in an email.

“That approach led us to implement a vaccination requirement and more recently to revisit and lift that requirement,” Charlton continued. “Our policies and actions have been consistent with applicable law, and we look forward to responding at the appropriate time in court.”

Musicians seek to be reinstated

Vaccine mandates were common during the COVID-19 pandemic, as were religious exemptions. The federal government allowed exemptions for “a sincere belief that is religious in nature.” So did hospitals and other health care organizations in the Triangle and across the country.

The lawsuit says the symphony had a policy of religious exemption and that those who received one would need to be regularly tested for the coronavirus and play in a “socially distanced manner” from other musicians. The three musicians were willing to do that, the suit says.

The lawsuit says Friedlander believes his body is as God intended it to be and that he avoids taking any medications or vaccines. It says that based on their Buddhist faith Caudill and Niketopoulos avoid any products that have been tested on animals, as the COVID-19 vaccines were.

The lawsuit says Friedlander, Caudill and Niketopoulos were placed on unpaid leave with health benefits for the 2021-2022 season and in the spring of 2022 were fired effective June 30. During that season, it says, the symphony allowed unvaccinated people to attend performances as long as they could show a recent negative test for the coronavirus, an accommodation that wasn’t extended to the musicians.

“We have dedicated our lives to music and have always been proud to be a part of the Symphony,” the three wrote in a joint statement. “We hope that this lawsuit will bring attention to the importance of religious freedom and prevent others from suffering the same fate.”

The lawsuit says the symphony lifted its vaccine mandate this summer but has not invited the three musicians back. The suit asks the federal court to order the symphony to rehire them as well as pay damages and legal fees.