More than 80 members of the U.S. Congress have signed a letter concluding that the Biden administration broke the law by dropping a lawsuit filed on behalf of a pro-life nurse forced to participate in the performance of an abortion in violation of federal conscience laws.
A coalition of 21 senators and 63 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, all Republicans, signed a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra last Wednesday.
They objected to the administration's move last month to drop a lawsuit filed by the Trump administration against the University of Vermont Medical Center on behalf of a pro-life nurse who claims to have been coerced to assist with an abortion despite federal laws that protect the conscience rights of healthcare workers. Additionally, HHS dropped a 2019 notice of violation filed against the hospital.
The lawmakers characterized the administration’s handling of the case as “a profound miscarriage of justice." They called the move "a rejection" of the administration's "commitment to enforce federal conscience laws for Americans of all religious beliefs," especially those who object to abortion.
“Your actions signal to employers all around the country that they don’t need to comply with the law because your agencies will not enforce it,” they added. “They also signal that this administration would rather allow consciences to be violated at the behest of the abortion lobby [than] enforce the law and protect religious liberty.”
The letter is signed by Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, and others.
On the House side, the letter was signed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, Andy Harris of Maryland, among others.
The letter was also backed by several advocacy groups, including the American Center for Law and Justice, Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations.
As previously reported, the HHS' Office of Civil Rights filed a lawsuit against the University of Vermont Medical Center late last year, during the final months of the Trump administration.
The department alleged that “the hospital actually misled the nurse into believing that she was scheduled to assist in another … unobjectionable procedure."
"It was only when she arrived in the operating room that the physician performing the abortion turned to her and said, ‘Please don’t hate me for this.'"
According to Claire Murray, who served as principal deputy attorney general at the Justice Department during the Trump administration, the nurse at the center of the lawsuit was included on the hospital’s conscientious objectors list to abortion.
It is alleged that the doctor performing the abortion knew the nurse was on the list. Even though nurses not on the list were available to assist in the abortion, the pro-life nurse was still forced to participate.
The Trump administration had previously sent a violation notice to the UVMMC and filed the lawsuit after the institution “refused to comply with federal law," the lawmakers note.
The congressional letter echoed the Trump administration’s claim that the medical school broke the law by violating the Church Amendments.
The Church Amendments “prohibit HHS grant recipients from discriminating against healthcare personnel who ‘refused to perform or assist in the performance of … [an] abortion on the grounds that his performance or assistance in the performance of the procedure or abortion would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
The amendments enable healthcare officials to “decline to participate in abortions without fear of adverse employment actions or loss of staff privileges.”
Since the UVMMC receives grants from HHS, the lawmakers argued that the institution must abide by the Church Amendments. The lawsuit contends that the medical center had developed a pattern of forcing healthcare workers to participate in abortions even though they hold moral and religious objections to the procedure.
The Republican lawmakers lamented that the Biden administration reversed course.
“The DOJ did in fact voluntarily dismiss the case on Friday, July 30, 2021, without any binding settlement or requirement that UVMMC remedy its unlawful policies or make restitution to, or even acknowledge, the nurse whose rights it violated," the letter asserts. "Further, you withdrew this lawsuit knowing there are no additional legal remedies for victims of discrimination in this case.”
“Although Congress has enacted more than 25 federal conscience laws, courts have not found protections like the Church Amendments to provide for a private right of action for individuals who have been discriminated against,” they added.
The lawmakers also accused Becerra of lying to Congress during his confirmation hearings to serve as HHS Secretary. They recalled how Becerra vowed to “continue to provide protections for the civil constitutional rights of all Americans, including those that involve religion” and “promised multiple times to follow federal law as it relates to the issues of abortion, religious liberty, and conscience protection."
“HHS’s actions in this case directly contradict those assurances," the letter states.
The members of Congress asked the chairs of the two agencies several questions and requested responses to their inquiries by Aug. 27.
One question asked whether HHS would continue to provide federal funding to UVM, which they described as “an unrepentant violator of federal law.”
The lawmakers asked the administration to explain the reason for dismissing a case “in which a plaintiff was known to be violating federal law and refused to comply with federal law” as well as any “new facts” that may have motivated HHS’ decision to drop the lawsuit.
They requested the agencies make public all communications between the administration and the UVMMC that discussed the relevant case and any correspondence with “outside organizations.”
The dismissal of the lawsuit against the UVMMC is not the first example of the Biden administration taking action that is viewed as hostile to conscience rights.
HHS issued a rule requiring medical facilities and health insurance companies to provide or cover sex reassignment operations regardless of whether their religious beliefs prevented them from doing so in good conscience.
Last week, a federal judge struck down the mandate as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden submitted a budget request to Congress that did not include the Hyde Amendment. This longstanding measure prevents the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortions. His budget request is still subject to congressional approval.
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org