Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

The right to say no

Religious Liberty | HHS defends Vermont nurse’s right not to participate in abortion
by Steve West
Posted 9/03/19, 05:43 pm

In its statement of values, the University of Vermont Medical Center says it respects “the dignity of all individuals” and promises to respond to their spiritual needs. Yet in one respect, it appears to have fallen short: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources notified the Burlington, Vt., hospital last week it violated federal law when it forced an operating room nurse to assist with an abortion against her religious beliefs.

The pro-life Catholic nurse, who previously told supervisors she could not participate in abortions, filed a complaint with HHS in May 2018. She said no one told her about the abortion until she walked into the room, when the doctor—knowing the nurse objected to abortion—said, “Don’t hate me.” Though other staff could have taken her place, the nurse’s supervisors required her to assist with the abortion anyway, according to HHS. The nurse, who is not named in the complaint, no longer works at the hospital.

A hospital investigation found no evidence, but a federal probe said the hospital broke the law.

The University of Vermont Medical Center conducted an internal investigation and said it did not find evidence to support the nurse’s allegations. Stephen Leffler, the hospital’s interim president, told Vermont Public Radio, to his knowledge, his organization had never compelled an employee to participate in a procedure against his or her conscience.

Federal investigators said the hospital forced the nurse and other medical staff to participate in abortions despite registered objections. More broadly, hospital policy violated federal law, according to HHS, by requiring nurses to assist in elective abortions when alternate arrangements could not be made.

The 18-month investigation concluded the hospital violated a section of law called the Church Amendments, named for the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho. Congress enacted the law in 1973 as a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which led to the legalization of abortion nationwide. The amendments prohibit healthcare providers receiving federal funding from discriminating against employees who refuse to perform or assist with abortions because of their religious or moral convictions.

Nurses should not face such a moral dilemma in their jobs.

“Moral distress leads to a nurse’s sense that I can’t align with who I am,” said Christy Secor, professional ministries director for Nurses Christian Fellowship. “For a nurse to be talking about whether to stay in the profession carries a significant impact not only for the nurse but for the organization.”

Secor pointed to the American Nurses Association code of ethics, which defines moral distress as “the condition of knowing the morally right thing to do, but institutional, procedural, or social constraints make doing the right thing nearly impossible; threatens core values and moral integrity.”

“When nurses feel moral distress, they feel it at their core,” Secor said, adding she has talked with nurses who feel distressed not only by their organization’s participation in abortions but also in end-of-life care and situations when they are not allowed to pray with patients who ask for it.

HHS gave the University of Vermont Medical Center 30 days to work with the HHS Office of Civil Rights to revise its policies and remedy past discriminatory conduct. Noncompliance could result in the loss of federal funding. For the three years ending April 30, 2018, the university facility reported it spent $1.6 million in federal financial assistance.

Becket Becket Joseph Chung

Sports win for religious minorities

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association changed one of its rules last week to accommodate players who observe the Sabbath on Saturdays. Joseph Chung, a high school tennis star, is a Seventh-day Adventist who sued the WIAA for its lack of religious accommodation in its state tennis championships.

Previously, players had to certify they would play in every postseason event to play in any part of the state championships, with injury, illness or unforeseen events as the only exceptions. The revised rule adds religious observance as an exception. Yet the change won’t end the lawsuit because the WIAA said it is too late to adjust the 2020 championship schedule. It also won’t help Chung’s sister Joelle, a 2019 graduate who also played tennis.

In 2017, the WIAA settled a lawsuit with Jewish athletes unable to compete in a state volleyball tournament because of Sabbath observance. The Jewish Sabbath, like that of Seventh-day Adventists, runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Under the settlement, WIAA moved the tournament up a day so it ended on a Friday.

Joe Davis, a Becket lawyer who represented the Chungs, said his clients would continue to seek a resolution: “It’s a step in the right direction that Joseph is now able to play in [the] postseason but we will continue fighting for a solution that will ensure that Sabbath observers can compete all the way through the state championships on the same terms as all other student-athletes.” —S.W. The House of Representatives chamber in the Pennsylvania State Capitol

No prayer for atheists

A federal appeals court ruled last week a state legislature may bar atheists from giving the invocation at the opening of a legislative session.

The 2-1 ruling by a panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Pennsylvania House of Representatives policy requiring a member of the House or “a member of a regularly established church or religious organization” lead the invocation. U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro, writing for the majority, said the policy did not unconstitutionally establish a religion “because only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking.”

The opinion also stressed that since legislative prayer is government speech, it was not open to free speech or equal protection claims. —S.W.

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Thu, 09/05/2019 03:16 am

    I can’t really wrap my head around an atheist having any interest in leading prayer, let alone demand the right.

  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 09/19/2019 02:36 pm

    Atheist are really anti-God, so their prayer would likely be some angry rant and raving against God.

  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Sun, 09/08/2019 05:34 pm

    Would the HHS have defended the Vermont nurse under a Hillary Clinton administration?