Forest Service slammed with lawsuit after Virginia pipeline protestor denied medical access

"What is a compelling state interest here for a private corporation to stop someone from getting medical treatment?"

A sign on the side of the road in Virginia.  CREDIT: Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images
A sign on the side of the road in Virginia. CREDIT: Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A Virginia-based organization is suing the Forest Service after officials denied an anti-pipeline protester medical access. The lawsuit contends that officials violated both the religious and First Amendment rights of one of the doctors attempting to treat a woman who has been living in a tree in order to block construction of the Mountain Valley pipeline.

The Rutherford Institute, a non-profit working on civil liberties based in Charlottesville, announced a lawsuit against the Forest Service on Wednesday alleging that those federal officials denied Dr. Greg Gelburd both his right to free speech and his right to practice his humanitarian-driven Christianity.

Along with another Charlottesville doctor, Paige Perriello, Gelburd attempted to visit a 28-year-old pipeline protestor self-referenced as “Nutty” on May 5 in order to provide her with medical assistance while she continues a strike from atop a platform in the trees. Once they arrived, Perriello told ThinkProgress that Forest Service officials refused to speak with them. As the doctors attempted to yell advice to the protestor, officials reportedly also moved a loud generator closer to them, effectively blocking out their conversation.

In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, the Rutherford Institute demanded that the government allow a physician through to examine Nutty. More broadly, the lawsuit argues, Gelburd should be allowed to practice his faith.


“Dr. Greg Gelburd has done missions around the world to assist people in need of health care,” constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, Rutherford Institute president, told ThinkProgress Thursday morning. “He does it based on his Christianity.”

But when Gelburd attempted to visit Nutty, Whitehead said, he was met with resistance, a response that kept him from adhering to his religious beliefs and commitment to providing medical assistance.

“[He was] concerned she would need some kind of medical care,” said Whitehead, noting that Nutty, who has spent weeks on a monopod in the trees, is at risk for illness and is being denied access to food and water according to multiple witnesses including Gelburd and Perriello.

When Gelburd asked Nutty if she was willing to discuss her medical needs and status with him, “she responded yes, she would let him look at her,” said Whitehead. “He wanted to move forward and he was threatened with arrest [by Forest Service officials].”

“Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act you have to have a compelling state interest [in order to block efforts like Gelburd’s],” Whitehead continued, pointing to a 1993 law that ensures the protection of interests in religious freedom. “What is a compelling state interest here for a private corporation to stop someone from getting medical treatment?”

Both the Mountain Valley pipeline (MVP) and Atlantic Coast pipeline (ACP) have stirred considerable controversy in Virginia — and in both instances protesters have taken to the trees.


The ACP is set to run 600 miles into Virginia from West Virginia before dropping down into North Carolina. On Tuesday, a trio of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to fully account for the impact the ACP would have on endangered and threatened species, siding with the Southern Environmental Law Center against the pipeline. That action nullified Dominion Energy’s permit for the ACP and halted that project, for now.

Efforts to stop the MVP have proven more fraught. That pipeline is set to run 303 miles, also stretching from West Virginia into Virginia, with plans to transport 2 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas on a daily basis. Local residents have widely panned the pipeline, arguing it is unnecessary, costly, and poses health and environmental risks to the region.

Together, the pipelines threaten approximately 1,000 water crossings in Virginia according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released in February.

A number of protesters have made make-shift platforms in the trees in order to stop the pipelines.

Over a month ago, Theresa “Red” Terry, 61, and her daughter, Theresa Minor Terry, 30, began a protest on two neighboring platforms in the forest in an effort to stop the MVP from running through land that has been in the Terry family for generations. Both Terrys eventually exhausted their supply of food and water. Attempts to bring them sustenance were initially blocked by Roanoke County police, who eventually began supplying both women with food in the form of bologna sandwiches and pizza.

Gelburd, along with Perriello, paid the Terrys a visit in late April in an effort to provide them with medical care and information, similar to later efforts made to visit Nutty. Gelburd told ThinkProgress at that time that he was “shocked” by the lack of access granted to the physicians by police. Neither doctor was ultimately able to examine the women.


A judge later fined the Terrys and ruled the money would go to the company constructing the MVP. Outraged, the women ended their five-week protest and came down from the trees on May 5. They have continued their efforts to lobby against both the MVP and the ACP, appealing primarily to Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to intervene in their construction.

Nutty remains in the trees, but her situation is reportedly dire. Two attorneys wrote in late April to Roanoke-based Forest Supervisor Joby Timm that Forest Service officials were denying Nutty food and water. Alan Graf and Tammy Belinsky, Floyd County attorneys who have worked closely with anti-pipeline efforts but do not directly represent Nutty, warned Timm that Nutty was at risk of “death or significant injury” and that the government’s actions are “are tantamount to torture”. It is unclear whether Timm ever responded to that letter.

Both Graf and Belinsky are now assisting the Rutherford Institute in its lawsuit against the Forest Service. Whitehead, the constitutional attorney, said the ongoing resistance to the pipelines is also indicative of how local residents feel about the projects more broadly.

“Many of these small farmers are trying to save their land, nature, endangered species,” he added.

Whitehead said it is unclear how long the lawsuit announced Wednesday will take, noting that as a “novel lawsuit” it is relatively unusual. “The judges are going to have to take a real clear look at this,” he said, “because we’re arguing the Constitution.”

This article has been updated to reflect that Roanoke County police were the officials interacting with Red and Minor Terry, not the Forest Service.