A Lynchburg attorney now is representing a Central Virginia Training Center resident whose father claims the state is seeking to undermine her First Amendment right to freely practice her religion.
Atul Gupta filed civil action in U.S. District Court in Lynchburg at the beginning of April, claiming a proposed diet change for his daughter goes against the family’s religion. Through the suit, he’s seeking an injunction to prevent changes to her diet and feeding method.
His daughter, 18-year-old Alisha Gupta, has lived at CVTC since 2003. She has a brain disability that prevents her from speaking, swallowing and caring for herself. Until recently, CVTC has followed standards of care for her that align with her family’s beliefs, according to the suit.
Lynchburg attorney Bevin Alexander, affiliate attorney with Charlottesville-based nonprofit The Rutherford Institute, started representing Alisha Gupta in the case on Wednesday and has filed an amended complaint that spells out the legal arguments in the case.
The Rutherford Institute, which gives legal aid in matters of constitutional rights, issued a statement Friday saying that Virginia is trying to “strip Alisha’s parents of their right to be consulted in her care.”
“This case is indicative of a draconian, expedient government mindset that views young people as wards of the state to do with as they will in defiance of their constitutional rights and those of their parents,” said John Whitehead, a constitutional attorney and president of The Rutherford Institute. “Yet the harm caused by attitudes and policies that treat young people as state vassals is not merely a short-term deprivation of individual rights. It also reflects the disconcerting view that civil liberties — including religious freedom — may be discarded at the caprice of government officials.”
Alisha Gupta has been fed a lacto-vegetarian diet of natural foods by non-mechanical methods, the suit states. Because of her disability, she needs to be fed through a funnel and feeding tube. They’ve made one concession for her diet: a powdered drink mix that supplements her with protein and vitamins. Her parents don’t want a mechanical pump or other device to be used to feed her.
CVTC is slated to close in 2020 and Alicia Gupta’s parents agreed to have her transferred to Hiram Davis Medical Center in Petersburg, since they couldn’t care for her properly at home. Atul Gupta said in the suit that Hiram Davis staff at first agreed to maintain her diet, which includes yogurt, Gerber baby food and fruits that are labeled organic, natural or non-GMO, according to the suit.
Gupta and his wife learned in March that CVTC independently consulted a health care provider about their daughter’s nutrition.
“The purpose of the consultation was to obtain documentation of a pretextual medical excuse to abandon the religious-based, long-standing diet currently administered to Alisha,” the lawsuit reads.
The suit names the Commonwealth of Virginia and five officials — including Gov. Ralph Northam, Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dan Carey and CVTC Director Dick Roberts — as defendants. In a motion filed by the Office of the Attorney General at the end of April, the defendants claim that Alisha Gupta’s proposed diet consists of an “organic vegetarian mixture” and follows “best medical practices.”
Whitehead said The Rutherford Institute and the plaintiffs dispute that definition.
The amended complaint states that a change in Alisha Gupta’s regimen to a “synthetic diet to be administered by a feeding machine” is “solely for the convenience” of her future home at Hiram Davis Medical Center.
CVTC’s 2020 closure is one facet of a legal settlement that will also place training center residents in community-based settings. Based on that agreement, Gupta’s suit states that Hiram Davis must have an Individual Support Plan for Alisha Gupta that takes her religion into account.
A federal judge will need to sign off on the amended complaint.