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Why ESPN and Disney are facing a federal religious freedom lawsuit

Reporter Allison Williams and producer Beth Faber allege that ESPN’s COVID-19 vaccine policies violated their religious freedom rights

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A sign marking the entrance to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World is shown.

A sign marking the entrance to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., is seen in this Wednesday, June 3, 2020, file photo.

John Raoux, Associated Press

Two former ESPN employees are crying foul over the company’s response to faith-based objections to the COVID-19 vaccines.

In a lawsuit filed last week, reporter Allison Williams and producer Beth Faber allege that ESPN violated federal religious freedom protections when it fired them for refusing — for religious reasons — to abide by the company’s vaccine mandate.

“The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut on Wednesday against ESPN and the network’s parent company, The Walt Disney Company, seeks unspecified monetary damages and a jury trial,” Front Office Sports reported.

The lawsuit explains that Williams and Faber each lost their jobs due to their decision to remain unvaccinated. Both sought religious accommodations, which ESPN refused to grant.

“There was no serious attempt to accommodate them,” their attorney Christopher Dunn told Front Office Sports.

ESPN and Disney are far from the only companies to face lawsuits over vaccine mandates, which became relatively common during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of colleges and health care systems, as well as multiple branches of the military, ended up having to defend their policies in court.

What makes the new case unique is that Williams and Faber argue ESPN and Disney should be held to the same legal standard as a state actor. Their lawsuit alleges “overt and covert” links between Disney and the federal government, according to Sportico.

“This purported relationship includes ‘the fact that the Defense Department occupies and maintains land, land it owns, at Walt Disney World, Orlando Florida.’ The Defense Department is also described as being ‘responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in Disney revenue, because of the military’s involvement in Marvel feature films,’” the article said.

Williams and Faber’s legal team likely chose to make those claims because previous suits against government-crafted COVID-19 vaccine mandates have been more successful than efforts to challenge mandates put forward by private employers.

In January 2022, for example, the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s effort to enforce a mandate at large companies — those with more than 100 employees — across the country. The justices ruled 6-3 that the COVID-19 vaccine rule exceeded the government’s limited authority to oversee workplace safety.

Unlike state actors, private employers have broad authority to set and enforce workplace policies, including policies that may interfere with some employees’ religious practices. When faced with a religious accommodation request, employers are free to deny it if they can prove that honoring it would impose an “undue hardship” on business operations.

“The Supreme Court has interpreted ‘undue hardship’ to mean anything more than a minimal expense,” The Conversation reported in 2021.

Attorneys for ESPN and Disney will likely cite this past ruling to defend ESPN’s actions. A spokesperson for ESPN did not respond to Sportico’s request for comment.