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Explainer: Department of Justice drops lawsuit against University of Vermont Medical Center

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August 6, 2021

As American culture continues to transform, one of the areas of particular concern for communities of faith is the preservation of religious liberty and all its applications. From the pew to the public square, people of faith have long enjoyed accommodations allowing them to act according to their conscience, abstaining from actions that would violate their deeply held religious convictions, for instance. This has long been a hallmark of life in America.

But recent actions by the current administration threaten to undermine these fundamental exercises of freedom. The Department of Justice, on July 30, dismissed a lawsuit filed by its Civil Rights Division against the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) which stated that UVMMC, in forcing a staff member to participate in an abortive procedure despite her stated moral objections, violated “the federal anti-discrimination statute known as the Church Amendments.” What proved to be a clear violation of the law by UVMMC ended with “no admission of guilt, no injunction, no corrective action, no settlement,” resulting in what Roger Severino says is “effectively a full pardon” for the organization. The ERLC joins Severino and the team at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in decrying this outrageous development. 

What was the lawsuit about?

On Aug. 28, 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office for Civil Rights issued a Notice of Violation stating that “after a thorough investigation and prolonged attempts to resolve the matter,” it was determined that UVMMC “violated the Church Amendments (42 U.S.C. 300a-7) by forcing a nurse to assist in an elective abortion procedure over the nurse’s conscience-based objections.” 

In response to these findings, “the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division”, on Dec. 16, 2020, “filed a civil lawsuit in Vermont federal court against the University of Vermont Medical Center” for its egregious act of discrimination. 

In the Justice Department’s press release, referring to the aforementioned “Church Amendments,” the statement declares that “that statute prohibits health care entities like UVMMC from discriminating against health care workers who follow their conscience and refuse to perform or assist with abortions.” The statement goes on to call UVMMC’s actions “an indecent coercion that violates everything this country stands for,” a “shocking and outrageous attack against the right of all people in this free country to follow their conscience,” and stating, “the U.S. Department of Justice will not stand for it.” 

Why was the lawsuit dropped?

Shockingly, though, the newly appointed Justice Department had a dramatic change of mind, deciding to “stand for it,” after all. 

According to Severino, the Department of Justice’s and HHS’ unusual step of dropping “a duly authorized lawsuit after it has been investigated and filed” is attributable to the newly elected and appointed administration. Since the violation, investigation, and eventual lawsuit all occurred under the previous administration, and seemed headed for some sort of lawful resolution, it is difficult to explain this move in any other way.

What happens next in this case?

Because the case was voluntarily dropped by the Department of Justice, it appears that no further action will be taken. As Severino pointed out, there was no admission of guilt, no order of injunction, no recommendation for corrective actions or measures, and no settlement awarded to the victim in this case. Furthermore, the victim herself has little-to-no legal actions at her disposal “due to nuances around private rights of action.” 

As such, the University of Vermont Medical Center will continue to receive federal funds “despite it having been found by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to have violated the law.”

What’s at stake in this case and others like it?

Considering the language used by Eric Dreiband, former assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, “everything that this country stands for” is at stake in a case such as this. 

Flagrant forms of discrimination like this against persons of faith are a direct violation of federal law, as the HHS Office for Civil Rights articulated in its Notice of Violation. Moreover, it is a transgression against one of the most fundamental human rights, freedom of conscience. If the outcome of this case is indicative of this administration’s intentions toward people of faith, then it signals a blatant disavowal of America’s most foundational and cherished liberty. 

Christians should stand ready to involve ourselves in the work of preserving and expanding conscience-protections on behalf of all people of faith, ensuring that religious and civil liberties continue to enjoy robust protections.  As always, the ERLC is committed to working on behalf of Southern Baptists, the broader Christian community, and all people of faith to defend these fundamental rights. 

Are there forthcoming legislative remedies?

In terms of expanding conscience-protections, specifically in the field of healthcare, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), in January 2019, introduced the Conscience Protection Act, an effort “to protect healthcare providers, including health care professionals, entities, and health insurance plans from government discrimination if they decline to participate in abortions,” which he then reintroduced on Feb. 23, 2021.

Whereas, in the event of a situation like that which occurred at UVMMC, where conscience-protections were clearly violated, “the only recourse is to file a complaint with the HHS Office for Civil Rights,” the Conscience Protection Act “provides doctors, nurses, and other health care workers permanent protection from being discriminated against by employers if they choose to follow their conscience and do not wish to perform, participate in, or provide an abortion.” As Lankford says, “Many entered health care to protect life; they should not be forced to take a life to keep their jobs.”

The passage of this bill would be a commendable step toward protecting the rights of conscience for those employed in the healthcare industry, and it’s one that the ERLC wholeheartedly supports. 

It is likely that cases similar to the one at UVMMC will continue to pop up as culture trends in a secular direction, but legislation like the Conscience Protection Act would ensure that robust and necessary protections are guaranteed for conscience-bound healthcare workers who find themselves in morally objectionable situations. 

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author