NC Symphony facing lawsuit over COVID-19 vaccination mandate

RALEIGH — Three musicians are suing the North Carolina Symphony and the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources after they were fired for refusing the organization’s 2021 COVID-19 vaccine mandate.  

The Symphony’s CEO, Sandi Macdonald, is also individually named as a defendant in the suit. 

“Some heroes wear capes — my clients play the French horn and violin,” Envisage Law attorney James R. Lawrence III said in a press release. “It’s an honor to represent these accomplished, highly talented musicians as they fight for religious freedom and their livelihoods.” 

“Our clients are dedicated musicians who have been unfairly discriminated against by the Symphony,” said Harmeet Dhillon, founder and CEO of the Center for American Liberty. “The Constitution guarantees religious freedom, but if governmental agencies can force Americans to choose between continued employment and fidelity to religious beliefs, our most basic liberties are in jeopardy.”  

The main accusations against the Symphony include violating the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by mandating the COVID-19 vaccination over the religious objections of the plaintiffs. 

The constitutional violation allegation is tied to the lawsuit’s claim that the Symphony is a state actor because it is managed by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The complaint also alleges the Symphony tried to distance itself from its state ties by altering its website, removing its former tagline stating it was “A Division of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.” 

“On information and belief, based on the timing of the Symphony’s changes to its webpage in relation to the events alleged herein, the Symphony altered its webpage in an effort to conceal or downplay its affiliation with the State of North Carolina for the purpose of avoiding the strictures of the United States Constitution,” states the lawsuit. 

Lawrence and Josh Dixon of the Center for American Liberty filed the lawsuit on behalf of three plaintiffs: Chris Caudill, Rachel Niketopoulos and Dovid Friedlander. 

All three had submitted religious accommodation requests that they expected would be granted but weren’t. 

“To Plaintiffs’ surprise, however, Ms. Macdonald put them on unpaid leave, preliminarily denied their requests, and ultimately terminated their employment for failing to take the vaccine,” the lawsuit states. 

Friedlander is Jewish, while Caudill and Niketopoulos — who are married — are both Buddhists.  

The filing alleges that Symphony leadership had no intention of granting religious exemptions and cites Macdonald as having declared the organization was committed to a “culture” of vaccination. 

In an interview with North State Journal, Lawrence noted the musicians’ jobs “are highly specific” and “very specialized jobs.” 

“It’s very difficult to find alternative employment,” Lawrence said of the trio, adding that these are “extraordinarily competitive positions.” 

The lawsuit also says the trio had been willing to comply with the same safety mitigation methods that were being employed for attendees of performances who were “allowed to sit shoulder-to-shoulder mere feet from musicians” during performances. 

“They’ve been cut off from the ability to go and perform in front of families and children,” Lawrence said of the plaintiffs. “Which is something that they really relish and enjoy doing as part of educational outreach throughout the state of North Carolina.” 

Lawrence added, “At the same time, the symphony welcomed unvaccinated spectators and we allege in the complaint, ‘Why would you do this?’ The reason is clear. They thought they could get away with discriminating against these three musicians.” 

The Symphony reversed its vaccine mandate just this past August but has not reinstated the three musicians.  

The lawsuit claims the reversal of the mandate was “not the result of evolving science, but the pursuit of $4 million in taxpayer money from the North Carolina General Assembly,” adding that, “As Ms. Macdonald put it, ‘[i]f we are going to remove our mandate in the fall, it behooves us to do it now … to limit jeopardizing our relationships’ with the State legislature.”  

Lawrence also noted that the Symphony had received two separate loans through the COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program of “1.6 million dollars each.” 

While the North Carolina budget has yet to be finalized, under most recent entries for the Symphony under the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources show a budget requirement of $6,439,908 for 2023-24 and a revised net appropriation of $10,767,947. 

The net appropriations total likely includes the $2 million in recurring funds for each year of the 2023-25 fiscal biennium that the Symphony also stands to gain as part of a “grant challenge program.” The $2 million is contingent upon the Symphony raising $6 million in non-State funds for the 2023-24 fiscal year and $7 million in non-State funds for the 2024-25 fiscal year. 

The plaintiffs are seeking “all equitable and legal relief available” from the Symphony including “back pay, front pay, actual damages, compensatory damages, consequential damages, punitive damages, pre-judgment interest, and reinstatement of Plaintiffs’ employment.” 

Similar relief requests are sought against Macdonald as well as attorney’s fees and costs and the demand for a jury trial.  

“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,” Symphony Vice President of Marketing & Audience Development Linda Charlton wrote in an email to North State Journal. “That approach led us to implement a vaccination requirement and more recently to revisit and lift that requirement.” 

Charlton added: “Our policies and actions have been consistent with applicable law and we look forward to responding at the appropriate time in court.” 

About A.P. Dillon 1070 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_