A nurse at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility in Texas sued the department Tuesday over its decision to offer abortions services in certain cases and abortion counseling to veterans, claiming the new rules violate her religious beliefs.
The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Waco, Texas, comes months after the VA announced the new rules, which represented one of the very few policy responses from the Biden administration to the Supreme Court’s decision in June to eliminate the federal right to an abortion.
The plaintiff, Stephanie Carter, an Army veteran and nurse practitioner working at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Center in Temple, Texas, claims in the suit that her “sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit her from offering abortion services and providing counseling required by application of the” VA policy.
Though the lawsuit is reportedly one of the first challenges to the new rule, it is not seeking to block the department from enforcing the policy nationwide. Instead, it asks the court to rule that the policy is illegal and unconstitutional and block the department from enforcing the policy at the facility in Temple.
The suit claims that Carter twice sought a religious accommodation to avoid following the rule but failed to obtain one because it “makes no mention of a possible exemption or accommodation for religious health care professionals.”
The VA, however, disputed that claim on Wednesday, saying Secretary Denis McDonough “has made clear to all employees that their religious beliefs are protected here at VA.”
“While we cannot comment on ongoing litigation, VA does provide accommodation for VA employees who wish to opt out of providing abortion counseling or services,” said Terrence Hayes, the department’s spokesman, in a statement.
The lawsuit says that, among other things, the department’s rule “exposes Ms. Carter to termination from her job,” “exposes her to criminal and civil liability under Texas law” and “exposes Ms. Carter to a possible loss of her nurse practitioner license in Texas.”
Texas’ abortion ban, which went into effect in August, put in place new criminal penalties for abortion and offered an exemption only for certain health emergencies. The state additionally has a civil enforcement law – authorizing private citizens to bring lawsuits against alleged violators in state court – for abortions performed after around six weeks into the pregnancy.
The VA’s new rule, which was announced in September, allows the department to provide abortions when a pregnant veteran’s life or health is at risk if their pregnancy were carried to term, or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. These services are also offered to Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs beneficiaries.
The rulemaking serves as notice that VA employees, including health care professionals, “may not be held liable under State or local law or regulation for reasonably performing their Federal duties,” the VA said in its rule.
Danielle Runyan, an attorney representing Carter in the case, blasted the VA’s rule in a statement on Tuesday, saying it’s “unconscionable that the Biden administration would force health care workers at VA facilities to violate their consciences.”
“The new VA rule disregards longstanding federal law that prohibits VA clinics from performing abortions and fails to account for the sincerely held religious beliefs of medical providers who are impacted by the rule,” Runyan said.
CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.