The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nationals fired employees who wouldn’t get vaccinated. Two now plan a legal challenge.

The Nationals have a coronavirus vaccine mandate for non-playing employees. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Two former minor league coaches for the Washington Nationals planned to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Friday over the termination of their contracts, which came after they did not comply with an organization-wide vaccine mandate that was implemented in August. Brad Holman and Larry Pardo announced their intentions in a statement to The Washington Post, writing that the Nationals “pretended” to consider their requests for religious exemptions.

“Larry and Brad are devoutly religious and refuse to take Covid vaccines as they are developed from and/or tested with aborted fetal cells,” read the statement, which said Pardo and Holman are working with a Miami-based law firm. “The Club pretended to offer Larry and Brad a chance to lay out their religious beliefs and request to be exempted from the requirements, which they did.

"However, less than 36 hours after they each provided a written summary of the basis for their sincerely held religious beliefs to the Club, they received an acknowledgment from the Club purporting to recognize and respect their religious beliefs as sincere and legitimate.”

In a statement responding to assertions about the Nationals’ process, a team spokeswoman wrote: “While we are not going to comment on specific exemptions, we took every request very seriously and applied a rigorous and interactive process to each request as is prescribed by applicable law.”

The team’s evaluation process included a questionnaire and deliberation by outside counsel; the Nationals’ general counsel, Betsy Philpott; and members of their human relations department. Employees seeking an exemption then had a Zoom meeting with Philpott, according to two people with knowledge of the proceedings. Calls lasted 30 to 90 minutes, per a person familiar with the matter, and consisted of Philpott asking follow-up questions about each employee’s bid for a health or religious exemption.

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On Aug. 14, the Nationals notified all non-playing staff members that they had two weeks to show proof of full vaccination or a first shot, or file an exemption request. On Sept. 1, unvaccinated employees were placed on two weeks of unpaid administrative leave while exemption requests were reviewed. That included Holman and Pardo, whose contracts were officially terminated Wednesday, the end of their administrative leave. Their joint statement says the Nationals violated “their rights to free expression and observation of their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The statement adds that Pardo and Holman “could not and will not choose to take the vaccines even if it cost them their jobs, which it ultimately did.” It ends with a promise of “fighting this outrageous decision by the Nationals in the federal courts.” The Nationals told unvaccinated employees they could return to work if they received a first dose by Sept. 14.

Holman, 53, was the Nationals’ minor league pitching coordinator and joined the organization in 2018. Pardo, 55, was the pitching coach for the club’s Florida Complex League team and was also hired in 2018.

Pfizer and Moderna used cell lines from aborted fetal tissue to test whether the vaccines worked, but the vaccines were not developed from those lines. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine used lab-replicated fetal cells during its production process, but the vaccine does not contain fetal cells.

While some groups have opposed or discouraged people from getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, major leaders of organized religions in the United States have endorsed getting a coronavirus vaccine. The Vatican has said it is morally acceptable to receive coronavirus vaccines that have used aborted fetuses in their research and production process because the “cooperation in evil” is considered remote.

According to people with knowledge of the review process, religious exemption requests had to check two boxes: Are the religious beliefs sincere? And could the team grant an exemption without compromising the health and safety of other employees? With Pardo and Holman, the Nationals ruled yes on the former and no on the latter.

In the response letters to both coaches, the club wrote: “The company recognizes and respects your religious beliefs and would accommodate those beliefs if it could. However, in light of the fact that a fully approved vaccine is now available, and given the nature of your position, duties, and essential functions, your continued performance of your duties without being vaccinated will pose an unacceptable risk to the health of Company employees (including you), customers, visitors, and others with whom you are required to interact in connection with your job duties.”

Alexander F. Fox, the attorney representing Pardo and Holman, said his clients will not speak with reporters while litigation is pending.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.