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‘Dereliction of its duty’: US bishops rebuke Biden administration for dropping conscience rights lawsuit
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, chair of the USCCB religious liberty committee / Catholic News Agency

Washington D.C., Aug 12, 2021 / 17:03 pm (CNA).

The U.S. bishops on Thursday criticized the Biden administration for dropping a conscience rights lawsuit.

On July 30, the Justice Department had quietly moved to dismiss its lawsuit against a Vermont hospital, which had allegedly coerced a nurse into helping with an abortion in 2017.

In response, the U.S. bishops’ conference stated on Thursday, Aug. 12 that the Justice Department was “acting in dereliction of its duty.”

“It is hard to imagine a more horrific civil rights violation than being forced to take an innocent human life,” said a joint statement by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas. Dolan is the chairman of the conference’s religious liberty committee, and Naumann chairs the pro-life committee.

In December 2020, the Justice Department – during the term of President Trump – sued the University of Vermont Medical Center after a nurse there claimed she was coerced into assisting with an abortion in 2017.

The hospital showed a “pattern” of discrimination against staffers opposed to abortion, the department added. According to the Justice Department complaint, approximately 10 nurses with stated conscience objections to abortion were forced to participate in approximately 20 abortion procedures at the hospital.

On Thursday, the two archbishops said the hospital’s alleged coercion was “not only deeply wrong, but a violation of federal law.” 

The 2020 Justice Department complaint alleged that the hospital violated the Church Amendments, federal policy that establishes conscience protections in health care.

Meanwhile, more than 80 members of Congress this week accused the Biden administration of committing a “profound miscarriage of justice” in dropping the case. 

Congressional Pro-Life Caucus co-chairs Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) joined Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in leading the letter from 84 members to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra.

A spokesperson for HHS had told CNA on Aug. 5 that the agency had requested the Justice Department to drop the case, withdrawing its own notice of violation issued to the hospital.

Under the Trump administration, the HHS civil rights office had first brought the case to light in 2019, issuing a notice of violation to the hospital. It had then referred the case to the Justice Department for enforcement.

“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,” the letter stated to Garland and Becerra. 

The hospital “easily could have accommodated objections without any disturbance to the services it provided,” they stated. Instead, it “continued to perpetuate a work environment that was hostile toward people of faith both in policy and practice.”

The Biden administration dropped the case despite the lack of “any binding settlement” with the hospital for its alleged coercion, the members noted in their letter. 

The legislators included 10 requests for information from the Biden administration, with an Aug. 27 deadline for response. The requests include any “new facts” that prompted the administration’s dismissal of the case.

The nurse who brought the initial complaint to the HHS civil rights office said that in 2017, she had been told by hospital staff she would be helping with a miscarriage. When she arrived at the location of the procedure, the attending doctor told her “Don’t hate me,” before telling her she would be helping with an abortion. When the nurse stated her moral objection to participating in the procedure, and asked to be replaced, her request was denied on the spot and she assisted with the abortion.

The legislators noted that the hospital received $1.6 million in federal funding in the past two years, and is thus required to abide by the Church Amendments. 

“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 continued. “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.”

In an Aug. 12 press release, Sen. Lankford noted his opposition to HHS Secretary Becerra’s appointment because of his hostility towards conscience protections. He cited Becerra’s efforts to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide contraception coverage in employee health plans.

As attorney general for California, Becerra in 2017 sued the Trump administration for granting broad religious exemptions for the HHS contraceptive mandate. The exemptions protected the Little Sisters of the Poor, who had to go back to court to intervene in the case. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the religious exemption, and against the state attorneys general who sued to take it away.