Inside Disney’s Covid Soap Opera

"Alex Cross" - Los Angeles Premiere - Arrivals
Actor Ingo Rademacher played Jasper “Jax” Jacks on ABC’s General Hospital for decades—that is, until he refused to take the Covid vaccine, ABC fired him, and he sued. Photo: Michael Tran/FilmMagic
Eriq Gardner
January 9, 2023

Crazy things tend to happen in Port Charles, New York. There was the time someone got plastic surgery only to wake up with someone else’s memories, and that summer when one of the townsfolk plotted to hold the world hostage. And let’s not forget when James Franco showed up a decade ago as a serial killer. Still, perhaps the most legally significant thing ever to happen in the fictional setting of ABC’s General Hospital is the termination of Ingo Rademacher. The actor played Jasper “Jax” Jacks for decades, until a worldwide pandemic arrived. Then, a miraculous vaccine came along, and plot twist, Rademacher refused to take it. He was fired, and then he sued. 

Yes, this all really happened. Just before New Year’s Eve, Rademacher and his former employer, ABC, filed their respective briefs in a soap operatic case that raises genuinely serious debate on how courts should grapple with the meaning of religion and the place of politics in our society.

Rademacher, after all, doesn’t actually belong to an organized church. Yet he maintains that it’s God’s will that he not inject himself with a substance he believes is foreign to nature. He’s now claiming religious discrimination, to which the Disney unit responds that taking care of one’s physical body lacks any “metaphysical element” and needn’t be accommodated. “Rademacher’s beliefs are not ‘religious’ in nature,” Steven Marenberg, the attorney representing ABC, told the Los Angeles judge overseeing the case.

As for politics, Rademacher’s attorney Scott Street amended the complaint late last year to add a new theory of liability: that Disney was discriminating against the soap star on the basis of his politics, which “did not align with the views being promoted by ABC/Disney, especially its view on universal vaccination as a political tool to end the pandemic.” Rademacher, who has been a frequent guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, says that internal ABC documents show the network began preparing to fire him before its mandate went into effect, when he began to speak openly about his anti-vaxx beliefs. 

ABC disputes this, of course, and counters that no rule, regulation, or policy prevents ABC employees from engaging in political activities. That said, if Disney wanted to fire actors based on their political beliefs, the company asserts every right to do just that. As Marenberg argues in his summary judgment memorandum (read here), “Even assuming his allegations had any factual support and were true, the alleged decision to terminate Rademacher from General Hospital for his political beliefs is a protected, casting decision under the First Amendment.”

Judges 12:5-6

Many will see Rademacher v. ABC as just one in a sea of cases pertaining to Covid vaccine mandates, but there’s something unusual here that transcends this particular controversy, and that will likely have implications for how similar cases are litigated: In short, how do you identify a true religious believer?

In biblical times, the test was whether the Ephraimites could correctly pronounce the word “shibboleth.” More recently, whether it’s draft dodgers who call themselves conscientious objectors or fired drug rehab workers who ingest hallucinogens as part of Native American ceremonies, it’s hard to know what to do with people who don’t belong to a traditional church yet insist they’re exercising their religious freedom. Those legal headaches are only getting worse now that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is encouraging as much religious accommodation as possible.

Rademacher’s own shibboleth test began in October 2021 when he had a phone conversation with Erin Nguyen, the director of employee relations at Walt Disney Television. At the time, the show’s writers had decided to minimize Rademacher’s role, and the actor, believing that safety protocols like masking had become an impediment to his performance, submitted a request for a religious exemption to ABC’s new vaccine policy. That triggered an “interactive process” to assess the request, pursuant to the “return to work” Covid-era protocol that Hollywood’s actors and producers had agreed to in collective bargaining. 

ABC says Rademacher initially resisted the process, but he eventually got on the phone with Nguyen. During the conversation, according to her declaration, he stonewalled. When asked to explain his system of beliefs, Rademacher replied that questioning his religious sincerity was a violation of the Civil Rights Act. Eventually, the actor told Nguyen that he based his life on reducing toxicity as much as possible and expressed his concern that people were dying from vaccine side effects. A few days later, Nguyen emailed the actor to inform him that she was unable to conclude he was prevented from receiving a vaccine due to a sincerely-held religious belief. His accommodation request was denied.

The dialogue, though, continued even after he filed a lawsuit. In his deposition, Rademacher testified that he had a “religious belief that we have a God-given immunity system” and that if he took care of his body, there would be “a really good chance of surviving any disease and also getting natural immunity which is far better than any vaccine.”

To Rademacher’s attorney, the invocation of God is basically enough. Street writes: “He did not pull the beliefs out of thin air last year, simply to qualify for a religious accommodation to Disney’s Covid vaccine policy. As a young man, he struggled to identify with organized religions and through a book called The Revelation of Ramal (a copy of which he produced during discovery), he developed his own, direct relationship with God.”

But according to ABC, Rademacher admitted he hadn’t actually read Revelation of Ramal in 30 years and had only purchased a copy on Amazon weeks before the deposition. Marenberg also noted that Rademacher provided no opinion on questions like what happens after death and that “the only religious accoutrement that Rademacher’s contends to follow (aside from possible vague references to ‘God’) are restrictions on the ingestion of certain ‘toxic’ substances.”

Both sides acknowledge that Friedman v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group is an important precedent here. In that 20-year-old case, a man sued a healthcare company that withdrew an employment offer after he refused to get a mumps vaccine because, he said, the vaccine was grown in chicken embryos and this man was a vegan. Was this religious discrimination? No, responded a California appeals court. The test, as outlined in Friedman, is whether a belief system occupies a place in life “parallel to that of God in recognized religions and whether it addresses ultimate concerns.” In that instance, the court concluded, “while veganism compels plaintiff to live in accord with strict dictates of behavior, it reflects a moral and secular, rather than religious, philosophy.”

And that’s precisely the reason Disney’s lawyers are talking about the afterlife. The courts may demand the utmost respect for religion, but there are still plenty of ways to fight plaintiffs like Rademacher by investigating their faith. Simply put, not every conviction belongs in scripture. And that’s before getting to the First Amendment questions.

Groucho’s Last Word

Given our society’s tendency to get political about everything, it’s not surprising that Rademacher is also now attacking his former employer for what he describes as an act of political retaliation. Indeed, Rademacher amended his lawsuit after Disney began researching who was bankrolling his suit and investigating other political topics, including his thoughts on the January 6 insurrection.

ABC, to be frank, doesn’t bother with explaining why Rademacher wasn’t expressing himself politically when speaking out about vaccines. According to its brief, the actor never disclosed his political beliefs to Nguyen, and Nguyen never considered them. OK, sure, but even so, it seems clear that many people at the company were familiar with Rademacher’s politics, including a General Hospital producer who, according to the amended complaint, forwarded to colleagues a news article about the “#FireIngo” social media backlash to his anti-vaccine activism. “He is such an idiot!” came one reply.

Still, ABC may have had a non-political reason to fire him—namely, his specific refusal to become vaccinated for the safety of others working on General Hospital—and it’ll be Rademacher’s chore to show how Nguyen’s refusal to accommodate him was pretextual. Rademacher’s court papers don’t yet address this, nor the issue of whether he can identify a rule at Disney/ABC preventing political activity. My understanding is that there’s some ongoing discovery on this matter, and that it’ll all come out in the next round of court filings in the coming weeks.

To get to trial, which is currently penciled for May, Rademacher may also need to overcome ABC’s First Amendment argument that it has an absolute right to cast who it wishes. Ironically, one of the precedents that the network relies upon in making this argument is its own legal success a decade ago beating a racial discrimination claim over the lack of diversity on The Bachelor. So, for those counting, anti-vaxxers may get the same treatment as those espousing critical race theory in Hollywood casting. The lesson here seems to be  that everything is politics. To quote Groucho Marx, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”