VA Implements Religious Accommodations Policy

VA Implements Religious Accommodations Policy

Nurse practitioner Stephanie Carter’s lawsuit against the Veterans Affairs administration has resulted in a nationwide religious accommodation process for VA employees with religious objections to participating in abortion procedures. 

When Carter, who works at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Center in Temple, Texas, sought a religious accommodation in the fall of 2022, the VA told her no such accommodation existed. 

VA officials explained to her on Oct. 11 that she would have to prescribe medications to end certain first-trimester pregnancies if she did not have an approved religious accommodation. 

Carter filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Waco against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in December 2022 for its rule requiring its medical facilities to provide abortions and abortion counseling. She claimed the VA was substantially burdening her freedom to exercise her religious beliefs in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). 

She was also concerned about potential liability, as state laws, including the Texas Heartbeat Act, makes a person civilly liable for performing or aiding abortions after a baby’s pulse is detectable. In addition, Texas has criminal laws against abortion, with punishments of up to 99 years in prison. 

First Liberty Senior Counsel Danielle Runyan said in a press release at the time, “The VA’s enforcement of the rule at the Temple, Texas, facility also subjects Ms. Carter to potential criminal and civil liability under Texas law.”

First Liberty, which represented Carter in the case, asked the court to dismiss its lawsuit against the VA on Friday, following the VA’s new nationwide religious accommodation process.

“We’re pleased that the VA implemented a nationwide policy to protect the religious liberty rights of all VA employees,” Runyan said. “Stephanie Carter is living proudly by her faith and should not be forced to choose between her faith and her career. Because of her courage, every VA employee in the nation can now seek a religious accommodation from participating in a procedure they find unconscionable.”

Religious discrimination in the workplace is at an all-time high. According to a report published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the number of religious discrimination charges filed by employees is six times higher than in previous years. 

EEOC data shows a total of 2,111 religious discrimination complaints filed in 2021. In 2022, that number rose exponentially, to 13,814. Religious discrimination complains comprise 18.8% of all workplace complaints filed. So nearly one in five claims is filed because an employee believes their religious rights under federal law are being violated.

The June 29 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Groff v. DeJoy strengthens legal protections for employees seeking religious accommodations, such as schedule changes to observe holy days. The court granted a unanimous decision to former postal carrier Gerald Groff against the United States Postal Service, after Groff lost his job for observing the Sunday Sabbath. 

The far-reaching decision affects employment rights at every workplace with at least 15 employees in every state. 

“This is a landmark victory not only for Gerald, but for every American,” said Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO, and chief counsel for First liberty. “The court’s decision today restores religious freedom to every American in the workplace.” 

Following the Groff decision, First Liberty says employers should revise their religious accommodation policies, train managers and human resources departments on the law, and reevaluate any pending claims to ensure compliance with federal law. 

U.S. Veteran’s Administration file photo

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