Federal judge strikes down Trump ‘conscience rule’ for healthcare

By | November 6, 2019

A federal judge has struck down a Trump administration rule that would have allowed for healthcare workers to refuse to provide or refer to sterilizations, abortions, and medically assisted suicide if doing so violated their faith.

The order, handed down Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer in New York, blocks the rule from going into effect on its scheduled Nov. 22 enforcement date. The decision is the latest in a string of court decisions that have gotten in the way of the Trump administration’s actions to protect religious liberty.

Engelmayer, a nominee of Barack Obama, wrote in his 147-page order that the rule “represents a classic solution in search of a problem.” In crafting the rule, federal agencies violated administrative procedures and ignored public comments, he wrote.

Other federal judges are also evaluating similar challenges.

The Trump administration rules don’t make changes to current religious liberty laws but instead create an enforcement mechanism by which healthcare providers can file with the agency’s Office for Civil Rights when they encounter situations in which they are compelled to provide, discuss, or refer for the services. The Trump administration added the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division to the agency last year to investigate such violations, and if workplaces are found to be guilty, then they can lose federal funding.

Engelmayer rejected the Trump administration’s argument that its rules represented “mere housekeeping,” saying he thought it “relocates the metes and bounds — the who, what, when, where, and how — of conscience protection under federal law.” Employers, he wrote, would have a hard time avoiding “inefficiencies and dislocations” in the workplace.

Supporters say the rules are necessary so that medical providers don’t lose their jobs if they refuse to help in abortions or refuse to refer to doctors who will prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients.

“This decision leaves health care professionals across America vulnerable to being forced to perform, facilitate, or refer for procedures that violate their conscience,” said Stephanie Taub, senior counsel for the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal organization. “The Trump Administration’s… protections would ensure that healthcare professionals are free to work consistent with their religious beliefs while providing the best care to their patients.”

States and municipalities, mostly led by Democrats, as well as socially liberal groups, sued to block the rule, saying the Trump administration was opening the door to discrimination in healthcare. They said the rules, which they call the “denial of care rule” would allow for women to be denied contraception or cause people who are transgender to be denied care.

“Today’s decision is an important victory against the Trump administration’s cruel and unlawful attempts to roll back critical patient protections,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, senior staff attorney with the Reproductive Freedom Project at the ACLU. “Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs, but religious beliefs do not include a license to discriminate, to deny essential care, or to cause harm to others.”