Federal judge blocks Trump admin’s ‘conscience rule’ that allowed refusal of healthcare for religious reasons

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A federal judge in New York has voided the Trump administration’s “conscience rule” that would have allowed healthcare workers to abstain from participating in abortions or providing other services such as contraception or gender transition procedures due to moral or religious objections.

In a 147-page decision issued on Wednesday and cited by Reuters, U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer in Manhattan said the rule that was set to go into effect on Nov. 22 was unconstitutionally coercive because it would let the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services withhold billions of dollars of funding from hospitals, clinics, universities and other healthcare providers that did not comply.

“Wherever the outermost line where persuasion gives way to coercion lies, the threat to pull all HHS funding here crosses it,” Engelmayer wrote.

The judge also noted that the rule was “arbitrary and capricious,” and conflicted with federal laws governing the obligations of employers to accommodate workers’ religious views, and hospitals to provide emergency treatment to poor patients.

Stephanie Taub, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to protecting religious liberty for all Americans, said that the judge’s decision now leaves healthcare workers “vulnerable.”

“This decision leaves health care professionals across America vulnerable to being forced to perform, facilitate, or refer for procedures that violate their conscience. The Trump Administration’s HHS protections would ensure that healthcare professionals are free to work consistent with their religious beliefs while providing the best care to their patients.”

The Health and Human Services Department issued a final rule earlier this year to ensure "that health care entities and professionals won’t be bullied out of the health care field because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience," as stated by HHS’ Office for Civil Rights Director Roger Severino.

New York Attorney General Letitia James led a coalition of 23 states, cities, and municipalities in a lawsuit against the rule she branded “refusal of care.” 

She celebrated this week's ruling in a statement, saying, “Health care is a basic right that should never be subject to political games. Once again, the courts have blocked the Trump Administration from implementing a discriminatory rule that would only hurt Americans. The refusal of care rule was an unlawful attempt to allow health care providers to openly discriminate and refuse to provide necessary health care to patients based on providers’ ‘religious beliefs or moral objections.’ We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to protect access to health care and protect the rights of all individuals."

In the summer, several nonprofits, including abortion giant Planned Parenthood, also filed two lawsuits in Manhattan federal court opposing the rule.

In response to this week's ruling, Nick Reaves, legal counsel at Becket, pointed to a ruling in Texas last month in favor of religious healthcare providers. U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor vacated an Obama-era federal regulation that would have required healthcare providers and insurers to perform gender-transition procedures and abortions even if they go against their medical judgment or violate religious convictions. 

"Doctors shouldn’t have to choose between giving up their faith and being forced out of their profession," said Reaves. "In a diverse and free society, we can ensure that everyone will receive needed care without punishing doctors for having a conscience."

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