The federal Office for Civil Rights on Wednesday accused the University of Vermont Medical Center of illegally forcing nurses to assist in abortions despite their religious objections.
But the hospital disputed those findings and criticized the office for a blindsiding public announcement that made a national example of UVM Medical Center in the Trump administration's effort to expand protections for religious objectors.
The medical center also defended its approach to balancing protections for employees' beliefs with patients' access to legal care.
UVM Medical Center could lose federal funding if it refuses to change its policies.
Longstanding federal laws known as the Church Amendments bar hospitals that receive certain federal grants from forcing employees with religious or moral objections to perform abortions or sterilizations.
UVMMC began offering elective abortions in 2017. The following year, the hospital updated its policy to allow employees to excuse themselves from the procedure, except in situations when other staff were unavailable to step in.
The Office for Civil Rights said the policy runs afoul of federal law. "Such situations of conflict are only possible because UVMMC chooses to provide abortion services while not adopting staffing plans and rotations that fully respect the known requests of its professionals," the office wrote in a Notice of Violation letter issued Wednesday.
An investigation by the office's new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, a Trump administration initiative, found that on one occasion, a nurse assigned to assist in an elective abortion didn't know the nature of the procedure until she entered the room — the result of being "deliberately misled" by supervisors.
"The doctor — knowing the nurse objected to assisting in abortions — told the nurse, 'Don't hate me,'" a summary of the government's findings states. "The nurse again objected, and other staff were present who could have taken the nurse’s place, but the nurse was required to assist with the abortion anyway."
The nurse, whose name was redacted, complied, fearing that she would be fired or be reported to a licensing agency if she refused, the letter states. She was "deeply traumatized" and filed a federal discrimination complaint in May 2018, it states.
Investigators concluded that the hospital intentionally discriminated against employees who oppose elective abortion. The violation letter lists four managers said to have expressed "overt disregard or hostility" to religious objections, though their names were redacted in the public version.
The letter gives the medical center a month to explain whether it will make changes to comply with the law. It received about $1.6 million in federal assistance over the last three years, according to the letter.
In a statement, hospital spokesperson Annie Mackin said the hospital investigated the allegations internally and found that they "were not supported by the facts." Wednesday's "disappointing" public announcement, picked up by national news outlets, came without advance warning, Mackin said.