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Gov. Inslee spokesman on ex-Washington State coach Nick Rolovich’s appeal: ‘He’s just wrong’

Former Washington State head football coach Nick Rolovich looks on during the Cougs’ game against Stanford on Saturday in Pullman.  (Associated Press)

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office is disputing several allegations presented in former Washington State University football coach Nick Rolovich’s appeal of his firing, including the notion that Inslee enacted the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate “to force Coach Rolovich’s hand” in light of the former coach’s objections to the vaccine.

The 34-page appeal letter, addressed to Athletic Director Pat Chun, gives Rolovich’s account of the circumstances that led to his termination “for cause” Oct. 18 for failing to comply with the vaccine mandate, as Rolovich’s request for a religious exemption was ultimately denied.

Rolovich, who was hired in January 2020, claimed Chun denied the request after WSU Human Resource Services indicated the former coach was entitled to a religious exemption. According to the appeal, Rolovich objected to the vaccine partly because of his opposition to medical research based on aborted fetal tissue.

The letter outlines several meetings that reportedly took place between Rolovich, Chun and, at times, Bryan Blair, deputy director of athletics.

That included an Aug. 19 conversation that reportedly saw Chun, with Blair present, give Rolovich four options – get the vaccine, get fired, claim an exemption or resign – in light of Inslee’s vaccine mandate for higher education workers.

During the conversation, Chun allegedly stated the governor “‘did this’ just to come after Coach Rolovich and WSU.”

“Based on the context of Mr. Chun’s statement, Coach Rolovich understood ‘did this’ to mean that Governor Inslee was trying to force Coach Rolovich’s hand with his new mandate,” the appeal stated, “because he was angry that the highest paid and one of the highest profile state employees had asserted personal or religious objections to his vaccine mandate.”

Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said none of the state’s vaccination mandates have included a personal or philosophical exemption.

When first announced in August, Inslee’s vaccination mandate for state employees and health care workers included provisions for religious and medical exemptions, not personal or philosophical. The same rules applied when the mandate was expanded days later to include workers in education and most child care and early learning centers.

Faulk said the state’s goal is “to maximize vaccinations to save as many lives as possible, all appropriate within the boundaries of the law.”

“It is not unusual to disallow a personal exemption as it relates to vaccines for deadly and highly transmissible viruses. For example, in K-12 a personal or philosophical exemption is not allowed (by statute) for mumps, measles, and rubella vaccines,” he said via email. “He’s just wrong.”

WSU, regarded as the first public university in Washington to instate a COVID-19 vaccine requirement, initially provided for philosophical exemptions when its mandate was first announced in late April.

The chance at a philosophical exemption was rendered moot for staff, faculty and contractors due to the terms of Inslee’s mandate. Philosophical exemptions were closed off to students Aug. 23 when the Pfizer vaccine received full approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The inclusion of education workers into Inslee’s mandate came amid advocacy from state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal and the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

Rolovich’s appeal also alleged the university and state have expressed a preference to medical exemptions versus religious ones.

His attorney Bryan Fahling supported the argument with an Aug. 3 email from Kathryn Leathers, general counsel for the governor’s office, obtained by FOX13 News Seattle. In the email, which was sent to staff with the Attorney General’s Office, Leathers stated, “Of possible exemptions: medical for sure; and religious (if we have to; if yes, as narrow as possible).”

“We have never expressed hostility towards any exemption,” Faulk said. “We have consistently applied all exemptions within the applicable laws related to required exemptions for our vaccine mandates.”