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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 and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24