A federal judge struck down the Trump administration’s faith-based rule on Wednesday that would have allowed health care workers to refuse to treat patients based on moral and religious beliefs.
The Southern District of New York ruled that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services went beyond the agency’s rulemaking authority in trying to implement what critics called the “denial of care” rule. The rule would have affected more than 600,000 health care facilities that risked losing federal family planning funds if they did not comply.
“HHS’s characterization of the Rule as solely ministerial cannot be taken seriously,” U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer wrote in his opinion. “Whether or not the Rule was properly adopted … the Rule unavoidably would shape the primary conduct of participants throughout the health care industry. It would upend the legal status quo with respect to the circumstances and manner in which conscience objections must be accommodated.”
The rule would have expanded and enforced existing laws that allow what religious conservatives call “conscience protections,” such as the Church, Coats-Snowe and Weldon amendments to the Public Health Service Act. The rule also details specific services that health care workers, patients and families of patients could refuse to provide or pay for based on their beliefs. Health care workers under the proposed HHS rule included physicians, nurses, receptionists, emergency medical technicians and call center staff ― a huge expansion from what previous laws considered health care workers.
Some of the services that could be refused included abortion, gender-affirming surgery and physician-assisted death. Health care workers would have been able to deny treatment or preventative care for HIV or AIDS, object to providing hormone therapy treatment and transition-related care, and refuse to help with in vitro fertilization for women who are single or in an interfaith or non-heteronormative relationship.
“In a case involving economic consequences and political dynamics on such a scale, the Supreme Court teaches that ‘[w]e expect Congress to speak clearly’ were it to delegate rulemaking authority,” the court opinion stated. “Far from speaking clearly here, in none of the three statutes at issue did Congress give any indication that it intended to subcontract the process of legal standard-setting to an administrative agency in general, or HHS in particular.”
A spokesperson for HHS told HuffPost on Wednesday that the agency is reviewing the court’s opinion with the Justice Department and will “not comment on the pending litigation at this time.”
The rule was finalized in May and set to go in effect Nov. 22, but it faced a wave of legal challenges from groups that said the rule encouraged discrimination against women, low-income people, the LGBTQ community and people of color by allowing health care workers to block access to legal, and sometimes lifesaving, medical procedures.
New York Attorney General Letitia James led a coalition of 19 states, the District of Columbia and three local governments in filing a lawsuit in May almost immediately after Trump announced the rule.
The National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association and Public Health Solutions also filed a lawsuit on June 11 challenging the rule. That same day, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Women’s Law Center and Democracy Forward filed a separate lawsuit to block the rule.
“As the federal district court made clear, the administration acted outside its authority and made false claims to try to justify this rule,” Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO of PPFA, said Wednesday. “This rule put patients’ needs last and threatened their ability to access potentially lifesaving health care. Everyone deserves to access the health care they need.”
The court ruling came just days after HHS proposed another rule, this time allowing faith-based foster care and adoption agencies to exclude LGBTQ families from their services while continuing to receive taxpayer funding. That rule, also based on religious beliefs, builds upon President Donald Trump’s push to appeal to evangelical Christian supporters.