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Biden administration drops conscience rights suit; ERLC protests


WASHINGTON (BP) – The Biden administration has dropped a Trump-era lawsuit against the University of Vermont Medical Center for requiring health care workers to assist in abortions despite their religious or moral objections.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) decried the July 30 action by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and called for its reversal.

The DOJ had filed a suit in December 2020 on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which had announced in 2019 the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) had violated federal law and the department’s regulations. The HHS Office of Civil Rights reported the medical center in Burlington forced a nurse to participate in an abortion and had scheduled other workers to help with the procedures though they had religious or moral objections.

The department asked the DOJ to dismiss the lawsuit following “a detailed evaluation of the underlying legal theory” used in its referral, an HHS spokesperson said Thursday (Aug. 5) in a written statement. On July 30, HHS also removed the notice of violation it had previously issued against the medical center, according to the statement.

Southern Baptist public policy specialist Chelsea Sobolik said of the administration’s decision, “That a nurse’s conscience would be completely plowed over to take the life of a preborn child is disturbing enough. But to add to that the fact our government – instituted to protect our rights – simply shrugs and drops this case is appalling.

“We should be a society that values both the lives of the most vulnerable and the conscience rights of all,” said Sobolik, the ERLC’s acting director of public policy, in written comments. “The Biden administration, and specifically the DOJ, should swiftly reverse course on these matters.”

In recent years, the ERLC has urged Congress to approve the Conscience Protection Act, which would bar government discrimination against health care workers and facilities that object to being involved in abortion, as well as health insurers that refuse to provide coverage for the lethal procedure. The bill also will provide alleged victims of discrimination with the ability to defend their rights in court.

The developments were not shocking. Xavier Becerra, President Biden’s choice as HHS secretary, supported seemingly unlimited abortion rights in his 24 years as a congressman from California. As California’s attorney general, he filed lawsuits against pregnancy care centers and a Catholic order that objected to an abortion/contraception mandate.

The ERLC joined other pro-life and religious freedom organizations in opposing Becerra’s confirmation, but the Senate voted 50-49 in March in support of the controversial nominee.

Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights when it issued a notice of violation to the medical center in 2019, said the Biden administration “is effectively giving UVMMC a full pardon and will continue to give it federal funds, despite it having been found by HHS to have violated the law.”

In an Aug. 3 article for National Review, Severino said it is highly unusual “for DOJ and HHS to drop a duly authorized lawsuit after it has been investigated and filed, while getting literally nothing in return.”

“Without so much as a slap on the wrist, this was a clear favor to abortion special interests and a spit in the face of not only the victim in the case, but the many medical professionals who have suffered conscience violations through the years and will continue to suffer, but now with little hope of recourse from their government,” he wrote.

In disclosing its notice of violation to the UVMMC in August 2019, the HHS Office of Civil Rights said the medical center had violated the Church Amendments and department regulations governing the receipt of federal funds. The Church Amendments, enacted in the 1970s, protect health-care workers who object to performing abortion or sterilization procedures because of religious beliefs or moral convictions.

The HHS requested the DOJ file a lawsuit when it said the medical center refused to comply with the law. The UVMMC responded to the announcement of the federal lawsuit in December 2020 by saying it had strengthened its policies on permitting workers to opt out of medical procedures that violate their beliefs. It also said HHS officials had agreed previously not to recommend enforcement of its 2019 charges.

At the time, UVMMC President Stephen Leffler described the Office of Civil Rights’ action as “baseless from a legal standpoint” and “an attack on reproductive care.”

After the DOJ dropped the suit, Leffler expressed his pleasure with the action, which he said the hospital “had urged them to do since the moment” it was filed, according to VTDigger.org, a nonprofit website covering news in Vermont.

The HHS Office of Civil Rights said in 2019 it contacted the medical center repeatedly “in a good faith effort to seek cooperation from UVMMC, but the hospital refused to conform its policies to federal conscience laws, provide all the documents requested by OCR, or produce witnesses for OCR interviews.”

Lucy Leriche, vice president of Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund, commended the DOJ for dismissing what it described as a “politically motivated” suit, VTDigger.org reported. “For patients, health care is personal, not political, and it is time to end government interference when it comes to abortion care,” she said.