Legal challenges are mounting against the Trump administration’s new rule allowing health care workers to refuse to treat patients based on moral and religious beliefs.
The National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, Public Health Solutions, the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Tuesday challenging the Department of Health and Human Services’ denial-of-care rule, which was finalized last month and is set to go into effect July 22.
The faith-based rule enforces existing laws that allow what religious conservatives call “conscience protections” and spells out specific services that health care workers and patients could refuse to provide or pay for based on their beliefs, such as abortion, gender-affirming surgery and physician-assisted death. Health care facilities that do not comply with the rule risk losing federal family planning funds.
Under the broad scope of the protections, health care workers can deny treatment or preventative care for AIDS or HIV, refuse to give hormone therapy treatment and transition-related care, and object to helping with in vitro fertilization for women who are single or in a lesbian or interfaith relationship.
The lawsuit said that the rule would encourage discrimination against women, low-income residents, people of color and the LGBTQ community by blocking access to legal medical procedures that include lifesaving treatments.
“The ACLU will not stand by as our government institutes policy that could endanger people’s lives,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “Freedom of religion is a fundamental right, but it cannot be used to harm others ― especially when that includes withholding emergency care or critical information about patients’ health.”
That lawsuit came the same day that the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Women’s Law Center and Democracy Forward also sued to block the federal rule, which it said would affect more than 613,000 hospitals, health clinics, doctors’ offices and nonprofits.
Santa Clara County in California is asking a federal judge this week to put the rule on hold while the legal process continues. San Francisco and the state of California filed separate motions for preliminary injunctions last week, and Santa Clara County filed a lawsuit against HHS on May 28.
“The Denial-of-Care rule is not the result of carelessness. It was designed to invite discrimination and intimidate providers into dropping services the Trump administration disagrees with,” the county’s counsel, James R. Williams, said in a statement. “In issuing this patently awful rule, HHS has neglected both its statutory obligations and its basic responsibilities to patients. The rule is operationally unworkable and will cause irreparable harm to patients and healthcare nationwide.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James, leading a coalition of 23 cities and states, filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the rule in May, almost immediately after Trump announced the new rule.
Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS, told HuffPost that the agency “will defend the rule vigorously” in response to the wave of legal challenges.
“The rule gives life and enforcement tools to conscience protection laws that have been on the books for decades,” Severino said in a statement Wednesday. “Protecting conscience and religious freedom fosters greater diversity in the healthcare space.”
The protections are a win for Trump, who counts religious conservatives among his political base. The rule does not go beyond statutes already enacted in the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, according to HHS. Rather, the new rule expands the kinds of workers who are covered by those laws, including reception and billing staff, for example. Though relatively few of such complaints get submitted to HHS every year, according to NPR, stressing religious freedom ― for some religions ― has been very important under Trump’s HHS.
The rule’s announcement was followed by restrictive anti-abortion laws passing at the state level across the country. Like the HHS rule, these laws also affect women and trans people’s access to health care.
“The HHS rule and the recent onslaught of abortion restrictions in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other states are the latest government attempts to control health care decisions that should be made by a patient and their doctor,” Public Health Solutions CEO Lisa David said in a statement. “In filing this lawsuit, we are proud to stand alongside other human rights groups, legal organizations, and government entities that are challenging the HHS rule and other policies that prevent access to comprehensive health care.