Durham County

Nurse’s lawsuit accuses Duke of religious discrimination

Duke University and the Duke University Health System face a lawsuit over their handling of a Catholic nurse’s requests for accommodations to her religous objections to abortion, birth control and vaccines.
Duke University and the Duke University Health System face a lawsuit over their handling of a Catholic nurse’s requests for accommodations to her religous objections to abortion, birth control and vaccines. hlynch@newsobserver.com

A Catholic emergency-room nurse has sued Duke University and Duke’s health system, arguing that they violated anti-discrimination law by refusing to accommodate her moral objections to abortion, birth control and vaccination.

Filed in federal court, the lawsuit seeks back pay and other damages for Sara Pedro, who after an eight-year nursing career in New York moved to the Triangle in 2016 to take a job at Duke University Hospital.

She started work that August, and about two months later, Pedro asked for and got an exemption from Duke from receiving vaccines. In early December, she followed up by telling hospital administrators she was “unable” to help with abortions, or give patients contraceptives and “any vaccines.”

Duke eventually put Pedro on administrative leave, for what her lawyers contend were “pretextual reasons,” possibly linked to a “performance improvement plan.” They allege she was kept on “orientation” status well after other nurses hired about the time she had begun had started advancing in the Duke hierarchy.

The Oct. 27 lawsuit contends that Duke violated the religious-discrimination section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to give Pedro a “reasonable accommodation” for her beliefs.

Court and regulatory agencies hold that the law basically means employers should avoid getting in the way of workers’ religious practice, a view that means for example they should try to give people time off for denominational holidays. More specifically, accommodation doctrine means they should look for workarounds when a employee’s religious views or obligations conflict with work requirements.

There are exceptions to that, for example for religious groups themselves, and for employers more generally in cases when supplying a workaround would impose what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other regulators term “undue hardship” on an organization.

The EEOC encourages employers facing an accommodation request to consider changing a worker’s assignment to eliminate the potential source of conflict.

An EEOC 2008 policy manual cited the example of a pharmacist who objected to providing contraceptives. It was reasonable in that case, the agency and the court said, for the boss to allow the pharmacist to defer to a co-worker who didn’t have a problem filling the prescription. But that didn’t mean the pharmacist could stonewall customers or avoid interacting with them, as that would mean “a disruption of business operations.”

Pedro’s lawyers contend that Duke has never explained, nearly a year after receiving her second request, why going along with it would have “presented an undue hardship.” She worked in neurosurgery and burn units before moving to North Carolina.

On the flip side, a trainer warned Pedro and other new hires last summer that “Duke does not allow employees a religious accommodation with regard to abortion,” the suit alleged.

Catholic Church doctrine opposes both abortion and birth control. That stance has also led it to weigh in on a few vaccines, notably those used in the prevention of rubella or German measles, originally developed from the tissue of aborted fetuses. In that case, it counseled doctors and families to look for alternative vaccines “if they exist,” but also said the questioned ones can be used “on a temporary basis” in the interests of public health.

The lawsuit hinted that Pedro’s objections on that point may go beyond church doctrine, as she has “multiple concerns and sincerely held religious beliefs about vaccines.”

Duke historically had ties to the Methodist church, but like many other large private universities evolved into and operates as a secular institution.

Pedro is working with lawyers from the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, a conservative group whose “citizen advisory board’ includes such well-known figures as former U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minnesota.

The team on the Pedro case includes Tyler Brooks, a Raleigh-based lawyer who represented former Gov. Pat McCrory in one of the discrimination lawsuits that resulted from the state’s passage of House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill” that addressed the use of public bathrooms by transgender people.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg