TAMPA — A nurse-midwife fresh out of school has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against a Tampa health chain, alleging she was refused a job because of her religious opposition to prescribing birth control pills and abortion drugs.
Sara Hellwege, 27, of Atlanta sued Tampa Family Health Centers Inc. and its human resources director, Chad L. Lindsey, seeking damages of $400,000 and the return of federal money paid to the centers this year.
Her four attorneys work for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group that opposes abortion.
Attached to the lawsuit is a May 13 email from Lindsey telling Hellwege she would not be interviewed because she is a member of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
In the complaint, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Tampa, the attorneys argue that federal and state law bars the centers from "penalizing applicants because they object to providing abortifacient contraceptives."
Hellwege objects to prescribing birth control pills because they may cause the demise of a human embryo, said Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel for the Alliance, who spoke Tuesday on her behalf.
Neither Lindsey nor the clinics' CEO, Charles Bottoms, responded to several inquiries from the Tampa Bay Times.
It's unclear how much public funding the health chain received this year, but tax forms filed last year reported nearly $5.8 million in 2012 government grants.
The nurse-midwife's complaint includes emails exchanged between her and Lindsey last spring as she prepared to graduate from Frontier Nursing University, a Kentucky-based program that offers distance learning.
Her first inquiry included her resume. She asked Lindsey to describe the "scope of practice" for certified nurse-midwives.
He responded with questions. When would she graduate? If hired, when could she begin?
Then, a week later, he wrote again, noting that her resume listed membership in the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, according to the email.
He informed her that the health centers are "Title X," meaning they get federal grant money to provide family planning services, including contraception. He asked if that would be reason for her to decline an interview.
She wrote, "Due to religious guidelines, I am able to counsel women regarding all forms of contraception, however, cannot Rx it unless pathology exists — however, have no issue with barrier methods and sterilization."
In Florida, advanced registered nurse practitioners, including certified nurse-midwives, may prescribe drugs, excluding controlled substances.
Hellwege asked Lindsey about other openings for nurse-midwives, suggesting that she might care for pregnant women or women in labor. His response, as evidenced by the email:
"Due to the fact we are a Title X organization and you are a member of AAPLOG, we would be unable to move forward in the interviewing process."
Lindsey's online profile at LinkedIn states that he has been with the company since 2011 and that he is a former offensive coordinator for the New York Dragons Arena Football League team.
A website for Tampa Family Health Centers states that there are 13 offices in Hillsborough County, focusing on internal medicine, family practice, pediatric care, dentistry, OB/GYN and pharmaceutical services.
Bowman said the Alliance previously filed three similar cases in other states, all with what he considered positive outcomes. Two targets were medical and nursing programs; the third a hospital.
He said Hellwege (pronounced hell-VAY-guh) still wants to work for the Tampa clinics. The lawsuit seeks an injunction requiring the company to fairly consider her application.
His organization also filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services.
"A lot of women want a pro-life midwife," he said, "and if it's illegal or if the industry prohibits pro-life midwives, a lot of women will be deprived of the right to choose a health care provider who shares their values."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Patty Ryan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.