Doctor Barred From Aiding Protester Sues on Religious Grounds

ROANOKE, Va. (CN) – A doctor who says he is bound by the teachings of Jesus Christ to provide care for the sick, claims in court the U.S. Forest Service violated his right to religious freedom by refusing him access to a woman who has been sitting in a tree protesting the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

According to the federal lawsuit filed in Roanoke on Thursday, the protester, identified only as “Nutty,” is at risk for severe weight loss, pneumonia and other illnesses because of actions taken by rangers, police and private security contractors since she climbed into a tree in the path of construction in March.

She’s been living on a platform, 45 feet above the ground ever since. She and other protesters object to the construction of the 303-mile pipeline, which is slated to pass through the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest as it snakes through lands in both Virginia and West Virginia.

Nutty was ordered to leave 10 days after her ascent, and when she refused, the U.S. Forest Service issued an order barring anyone from approaching her or giving her food and water or other provisions.

When word of Nutty’s occupation spread, Greg Gelburd, who is represented by Tammy Belinsky of Copper Hill, Virginia, says he felt duty bound to help Nutty as both physician and devout Christian.

Gelburd, who has practiced medicine for 32 years, says in his 12-page complaint that he believes “that each person is made in the image of Jesus and that he is called to try to assist those in need as he would try to assist Jesus.”

But according to Gelburd, when defendants Vicki Christiansen, interim chief for the U.S. Forest Service, and Joby Timm, supervisor for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, refused to let him provide Nutty with medical care or provisions to survive, his right to religious freedom was violated.

Gelburd says when he hiked to Nutty on May 5, the defendants prevented him from reaching her and allegedly threatened him with arrest. Nevertheless, Gelburd says, he became “immediately concerned” that the protester required medical attention.

“Because Nutty has extremely limited food and water, Gelburd believes she is not receiving the nutrition she needs and that she will suffer from severe weight loss … pneumonia, [and the] breakdown of her skin which could lead to infections,” the complaint states.

Gelburd says while he was on the scene, Nutty asked him to be her doctor.

Deprivation tactics, like the use of a noisy generator on the site to stymie communication, and inundation by smoke and spotlights to keep her from sleeping, plus a total lack of medical care, means Nutty’s condition becomes increasingly dangerous with each passing day, Gelburd argues.

By refusing him access, the doctor claims defendants violated his First Amendment right, his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and as a representative of Nutty, his Fifth Amendment right as well.

“As a doctor chosen by Nutty to provide medical care, plaintiff Gelburd has standing to raise and enforce the constitutional right of Nutty to receive adequate medical care when her liberty to do so is restrained by government agents,” the complaint states.

He seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, and an order allowing him to provide the protester with medical care.

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