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Shawn Vestal: If Rolovich takes the next step, he’ll be facing an unbeaten opponent

Rolovich  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Last fall, we went to a great football game in Pullman.

My brother came up from Boise to see his daughter, then a freshman at Washington State, for Family Weekend. It was a warm, sunny October day. We watched the Cougs put together a thrilling win over Stanford as afternoon drifted into twilight.

Then, after all that, there remained a tantalizing question: Was that coach Nick Rolovich’s last game?

By that point, the clock had almost run out on Rolovich’s coy, evasive public dance about whether he would follow the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees – a silly, dishonest shuffle that had become a weekly distraction for his team, a national embarrassment for his university and an undermining of the effort to safely return to in-person learning as the delta wave was beginning.

“I don’t think this is in my hands,” Rolovich said after the Stanford victory. “I’ve been settled for a long time on it. I believe it’s going to work out the right way.”

He was inadvertently correct; it wasn’t in his hands and it worked out the right way. He was fired from his $3-million-a-year job, after his request for a religious exemption was denied by a university committee. The inevitable lawsuit threat followed – and Rolovich took the first step in that direction by filing a $25 million tort claim with the state at the end of April.

That claim started a clock that could result in a full, formal complaint. Rolovich’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment so it’s hard to know if or when the other shoe might drop.

But the coach is entering a game with long odds. Only a fool would predict the outcome – that’s why they play the game, in the old sports cliche – but the state’s legal record on defending pandemic emergency orders such as mask mandates is strong so far.

These orders have stood up to 46 court challenges to date, and haven’t lost once, according to the attorney general’s office. Whatever you think of the emergency, or how long it’s gone on, its legal basis seems strong.

Two specific challenges to the vaccine mandate failed at early stages. Last October, for example, a federal judge, Thomas Rice, quickly rejected an attempt by state workers opposing the mandate to halt it before its implementation.

“The Supreme Court has long endorsed state and local government authority to impose compulsory vaccines,” he wrote in his ruling denying an injunction. “Federal courts have routinely analyzed such cases using rational basis and regularly reject cases similar to this one that challenge vaccine mandates based on free exercise of religion.”

Among the most pertinent details of Rolovich’s effort to seek a religious exemption was the news last year that WSU President Kirk Schulz had – in an effort to assuage Rolovich’s concerns about the vaccine – put him in touch with one of the university’s most distinguished scholars, the infectious diseases researcher and professor Guy Palmer.

Palmer is a capital E expert on infectious diseases, whose résumé is studded with honors and distinguished national positions.

In a story published last fall, Palmer told ESPN that Rolovich’s concerns represented the type of anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs that were – and still are – flooding social media. Less matters of faith, perhaps, than matters of politicized misinformation.

In Palmer’s words, they were “kind of typical ones: ‘Is Bill Gates involved with the vaccines? Does he hold a patent on the vaccines?’ He asked whether SV40 is in the vaccines and whether that could be a dangerous thing. And the answer to that is no.”

SV40 is simian virus 40, which was associated with health problems arising from the very first polio vaccines.

It has not been present in vaccines since 1963, but it’s been very present in anti-vaxxer circles forever.

Rolovich is a Catholic, and – though the church sanctioned getting the vaccine and the pope called it an “act of love” – asked the university for a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate.

A review committee, without knowing the identities of the applicants, rejected his application. WSU President Kirk Schulz, in rejecting Rolovich’s appeal of his firing, wrote, “The record in the written materials establishes that the University had a legitimate basis to question whether you had a sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance that conflict with the vaccine requirement.”

Even if he had, Schulz said, the university couldn’t provide a “reasonable accommodation” for him to continue doing his job – in the way that some employees could work from home, for example – without creating “undue hardship” for the team and university.

Rolovich’s attorney has claimed he was the victim of religious discrimination, and that the university breached his contract and defamed him. He accused Athletic Director Pat Chun of acting with hostility and bias toward Rolovich, including interfering with the exemption-review process to have Rolovich’s request denied, and he claimed that Schulz, Chun, the regents – even the governor himself – had a personal vendetta against Rolovich.

Will these arguments sway a court?

It’s out of Rolovich’s hands, just as it was last October.

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