FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Despite sunny but chilly weather, hundreds gathered outside Lake Region Healthcare's Fergus Falls hospital Monday, Oct. 25, in support of a surgeon who lost his job after making anti-mask mandate comments at a public hearing.
Last week, Dr. Jeff Horak left his employment with Lake Region Medical Group, whom he worked for while he practiced at Lake Region Healthcare for about 16 years, after speaking in favor of "parental freedom" while delivering remarks against a school mask mandate at a Fergus Falls School Board meeting on Oct. 11.
In addition to his comments on masks, some residents thought Horak delivered a racial slur in reference to the 20 years he spent working in Detroit.
"Fixing your ulcer ... I just put the two sides together," he said. "Anybody could do it. Monkeys could do it. Monkeys do it in Detroit."
Horak said he didn't even know the brief comment could be viewed as derogatory or racist. He said he was "literally talking about monkeys."
Many at Monday's rally voiced shock and anger that it appeared Lake Region Healthcare fired Horak for voicing his opinion on masks at a public hearing.
Officials have offered few details on Horak's departure. Horak said he has a clause in his contract that bars him and his employer from discussing the specific reasons for his departure.
The roughly 300 protesters were joined by Horak, as well as Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen, a family practice physician.
Both took to a platform set up in a park near the hospital to address the crowd.
Horak said just as his audience had shown up to support him he was at Monday's rally to support them.
"I stand with the community," Horak said.
"It's not about me, it's not about my job," he told the crowd.
Without speaking directly about the details of his departure, Horak used terms like "firing" and "termination" to describe his situation. He added that what happened to him "could happen to all of us."
Joined on the small stage by his wife, Debbie, Horak told supporters his family was overwhelmed, in a good way, by the outpouring of support.
He said what happens next is not clear.
"We're still trying to figure out what we're going to do," Horak said.
Many of those who spoke in support of Horak said that while details of his departure remained unclear, to the extent it may be tied to personal opinions expressed at a public meeting made them worry for the future of personal freedoms and rights enshrined in the constitution.
Robbie Beehler, a Fergus Falls resident who attended Monday's rally with his wife and two children, said he and his wife were there because they support the authority of parents to make decisions for their children as well as to show support for Horak.
Jensen, who has announced his candidacy for governor, spoke briefly at Monday's rally.
"We know that the First Amendment does many things. Clearly, the First Amendment gives us our freedom of speech and that's being called into question today," Jensen said.
"But we're not just speaking for freedom of speech," he added. "We're speaking to freedom of religion and we're standing for the press and the ability to assemble and we're standing for the ability to petition. That's why we're here today."
Eric Hanson of Dent, Minn., brought a large American flag to the rally, which he said he has brought to other similar rallies in the past.
He said his reason for being at the rally was a simple one:
"We have to have a new birth of patriotism," said Hanson, who later led the crowd in a number of chants as vehicles passing by sporadically honked their horns.
Kent Mattson, CEO at Lake Region Healthcare, has issued a statement underscoring that Lake Region Healthcare was not Horak's employer.
"Dr. Horak is part of Lake Region Medical Group, the partnership of providers that LRH contracts with and official action and the reasons for any separation are among he and the Medical Group Board," Mattson said in his statement.
"Dr. Horak was placed by the Medical Group for services at Lake Region Healthcare under our Professional Services Agreement. We sincerely appreciate Dr. Horak’s 16 years of service to our patients and our organizations and we wish him the best as he transitions his practice from here," Mattson added.
Dr. Greg Smith, president of the Medical Group Board, said in a written statement that the reasons for Horak’s separation were a confidential matter.
He noted, however, that on Oct. 20 the Medical Group Board decided to discontinue Horak’s employment contract after a thorough review process.
"The board is comprised of nine of Dr. Horak’s partners, physicians in specialties ranging from Primary to Specialty and Surgical Care, who have been serving our communities for decades and who care deeply about the people we serve together with Lake Region Healthcare," Smith said.
"To be clear," Smith added, "this was a decision that was made by Dr. Horak’s peers who serve on the Medical Group Board, not by Lake Region Healthcare, the community-based hospital where Dr. Horak practiced general surgery."