VA Sets Rules for Employees to Opt Out of Providing Abortions over Religious Objections

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Phoenix VA Health Care Center.
This April 28, 2014, file photo shows the Phoenix VA Health Care Center in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

The Department of Veterans Affairs has formalized the process for employees to opt out of providing abortion care for religious reasons.

In guidance sent out Friday, the department specified that employees can ask their supervisor or a "reasonable accommodation coordinator" for a religious exemption to the VA's recently implemented abortion policy. The department also released the forms coordinators and physicians will use during the request process.

"VA's goal is to meet the needs of veterans while protecting VA employees' statutory rights, including those that protect their religious exercise and beliefs," the department said in a fact sheet accompanying the guidance.

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"Physicians (MD and DO), residents, fellows, and medical students (physician trainees) may, for any reason, opt out of performing induced abortions, receiving or providing training in the performance of induced abortions, providing referrals for such training or such abortions, or making arrangements for training or performance of induced abortions," the fact sheet added.

The release of a formal religious exemption process comes after a nurse practitioner at the Olin E. Teague Veterans' Center in Temple, Texas, filed a lawsuit in December that alleged a supervisor twice brushed off her request for religious accommodation, at one point telling her to "just wait" for the VA to put an exemption process in place. The lawsuit does not say she had been asked to provide abortion care, but argued she could be asked to "at any time."

The lawsuit, filed by conservative Christian legal group First Liberty Institute on behalf of the nurse, Stephanie Carter, asked the court to block the abortion policy at the Texas facility and argued the policy violates Carter's religious liberties because her beliefs prevent her from working "in a facility that performs abortion services for reasons other than to save the life of the mother because, in her view, unborn babies are created in the image of God and should be protected."

The VA announced in September it would for the first time offer abortions in cases of rape, incest or where the life or health of the mother is at risk from the pregnancy, adding that employees whose religious beliefs prevent them from participating in abortions would be able to opt out of services related to the procedure.

The change came in response to the June Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization that overturned 50 years of nationwide abortion rights and allowed states to ban the procedure. Since the ruling, at least 17 states have outlawed or severely restricted most abortions, while a handful of others have been blocked by courts from implementing bans at least temporarily.

Under the new guidance, which officials stressed is not a change in policy but rather a formalization of existing practices, managers are supposed to temporarily excuse employees from abortion care while their exemption requests are being processed.

The process for requesting a religious exemption to the VA's policy will differ somewhat based on the employee's job and what specific law applies to them, but in general will involve working out a request with a supervisor and a reasonable accommodation coordinator, which is an existing position in human resources, according to the guidance. The initial request can be made to either the coordinator or a supervisor and can be done in any form, including in person, over email or on the phone.

If a physician makes a request under what's called "Coats-Snowe," a federal law that allows doctors to opt out of providing abortions, the request must be automatically granted.

If requests are made under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the government cannot "substantially burden" a person's exercise of religion, supervisors will need to weigh whether the work can be given to a different staff member or if the employee making the request can be reassigned.

"From day one, Secretary [Denis] McDonough has made clear to all employees that their religious beliefs are protected here at VA," VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement. "VA continues to provide accommodations for VA employees who wish to opt out of providing abortion counseling or services."

The formalization of the religious exemption request process comes as Republicans take control of the House after promising to target the VA's abortion policy.

One of the first bills the GOP House majority has pledged to take up would ban federal funding for abortions and performing the procedure at federal facilities except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is danger, essentially making permanent the so-called Hyde Amendment that is included in annual appropriations bills and that the VA argues does not apply to the department.

Republicans have also vowed to reintroduce a resolution that would overturn the VA policy.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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