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A group of 84 Republican lawmakers penned a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on Wednesday claiming that the pair had violated federal conscience-protection laws when they instructed the Department of Justice to dismiss a lawsuit against a hospital that forced a nurse to assist an elective abortion.
The letter, obtained by the Daily Caller, asks why Becerra and Garland moved to drop the lawsuit filed under former President Trump’s administration in December 2020.
“Your handling of this case is a profound miscarriage of justice and a rejection of your commitment to enforce federal conscience laws for Americans of all religious beliefs and creeds—and especially for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who object to abortion,” wrote the group of GOP senators and congressmen led by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma.
“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,” the letter adds. “They also signal that this administration would rather allow consciences to be violated at the behest of the abortion lobby rather enforce the law and protect religious liberty.”
Under the Trump administration, HHS’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued a notice of violation against the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) in August 2019 after a nurse was allegedly forced to assist with an abortion despite her objections.
The lawmakers wrote that UVMMC had violated the 1973 Church Amendments banning HHS grant recipients from discriminating against individuals who will not assist with an abortion because of their religious beliefs.
“UVMMC not only violated one nurse’s conscience rights, but it kept policies in place that explicitly required members with conscience objections to participate in procedures to ‘ensure that patient care is not negatively impacted,’” the lawmakers said.
The letter notes that HHS’ OCR found that the hospital has scheduled roughly ten nurses with registered conscience objections to assist with about 20 abortions.
“UVMMC easily could have accommodated objections without any disturbance to the services it provided, as it had for other non-religious and non-abortion-related objections, but instead continued to perpetuate a work environment that was hostile toward people of faith both in policy and practice,” the lawmakers wrote.
HHS warned the hospital that it had run afoul of the Church Amendments, according to the lawmakers, and “even offered to work with UVMMC to help bring it into compliance.”
The hospital, however, refused to comply with “federal law and its contractual obligations as a federal grant recipient,” the letter says.
The DOJ sued the hospital, which has received grant funding from HHS since 1998, in December 2020 at the referral of HHS under the Trump administration.
However, under Becerra and Garland, HHS rescinded its notice of violation, withdrew its referral to the DOJ and asked that the Justice Department dismiss the lawsuit.
“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 lawmakers wrote.
“Instead of supporting proposed legislation like the Conscience Protection Act to allow victims of discrimination to have their day in court, by reportedly unraveling the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within HHS OCR and dropping this lawsuit, you have spent your time blocking any possible legal remedy for victims of discrimination and making it harder for any further discrimination claims to be filed, investigated, and remedied,” the letter adds.
“In a pluralistic society, laws that allow people to live by their conscience should not even be necessary,” the group continued. “Nevertheless, due to the coercive actions of employers like UVMMC and the hostility toward religious and moral convictions shown by your agencies in this case, the importance of these laws is plainly demonstrated.”
The letter notes that Becerra vowed earlier this year that HHS, under his leadership, would “continue to provide protections for the civil constitutional rights of all Americans, including those that involve religion,” and to follow the law as it relates to abortion, religious liberties, and conscience protections.
“HHS’s actions in this case directly contradict those assurances,” the lawmakers said. “Moreover, they call into question your honesty before Congress and willingness to enforce the law in all other matters. We will continue to monitor the actions of both HHS and DOJ to ensure that the laws as enacted by Congress are fully enforced.”