By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog
GATEKEEPING: A taxpayer-funded health center may be discriminating against pro-life job applicants, in violation of federal law.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Sara Hellwege lost a chance for a job at the Tampa Family Health Centers because of her pro-life religious beliefs, a U.S. District Court lawsuit alleges.
Federal law prohibits taxpayer-funded health-care facilities from requiring health professionals to prescribe so-called abortifacient forms of birth control, or contraceptives that kill fertilized embryos, if health workers object on religious or moral grounds.
Hellwege, a recently graduated nursing student and licensed Georgia health-care practitioner, never got that far.
A series of emails between Hellwege and Chad Lindsey, director of human resources for TFHC, points to reservations the health center had with Hellwege’s membership in a pro-life group.
“To inform you, we are a Title X organization and I see that you part (sic) of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists Society. Would this be a reason for you to decline and interview (sic) if offered one?” Lindsey wrote.
Hellwege confirmed she was a member of the group and said she could not prescribe abortifacient drugs due to religious guidelines. Hellwege is a practicing Christian. She remained open, however, to other forms of contraception and even inquired about other open positions.
“Due to the fact that we are a Title X organization and you are an (sic) member of AAPLOG, we would be unable to move forward in the interviewing process,” Lindsey responded.
Watchdog.org contacted Tampa Family Health Centers for comment but did not receive a response.
Title X, or the Title X Family Planning Program, is part of the Public Service Health Act. It’s designed to provide health services for low-income families and uninsured people at reduced prices, or no cost at all. Tampa Family Health Centers has 13 locations throughout Hillsborough County and receives significant funding from the federal government.
It’s TFHC’s Title X funding that arguably makes it illegal for the health center to reject Hellwege’s attempt at gaining employment.
“Any religious objection or any non-religious moral objection to participating in something like early abortion hormones cannot be used to discriminate against someone who applies to a program funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services,” Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, told Watchdog.org.
ADF filed the lawsuit alleging employment discrimination.
Bowman contends Hellwege was otherwise qualified for the job and had nothing in her history that would have disqualified her. The statutory protection applies to all religions, he said.
The allegations come in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 Hobby Lobby decision in which the high court ruled in favor of the owners of the Oklahoma-based arts and crafts retail chain. As devout Christians, the owners objected to paying for health insurance covering abortifacient forms of birth control. That put them at odds with an Affordable Care Act mandate and the Obama administration.
The court’s majority relied on an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prevents the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of their religion. The legislation passed Congress in 1993 with just three dissenting votes and was signed into law by President Clinton.
The Tampa Family Health Center case is much simpler, said Bowman.
“The email exchange is a smoking gun,” he said. “What they did was illegal. There’s really no excuse for it. I hope they will admit that they were wrong and allow Ms. Hellwege to apply for the job.”
Contact William Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org