Second Federal Judge Blocks Rule Protecting Rights of Conscience to Healthcare Providers

November 9, 2019 Updated: November 9, 2019

A second federal court judge has overturned a Trump administration rule that allowed healthcare providers to refuse to provide medical services they object to for religious or moral reasons.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian in the Eastern District Court of Washington granted a summary judgment to the state attorney general, who argued that the rule would threaten access to reproductive healthcare, particularly for low-income, rural, and working poor patients, and allow providers to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, according to the Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

“The court agreed that all Washingtonians deserve to receive the full range of health care services,” Ferguson said in the statement on Nov. 7. “This rule would have disproportionately harmed rural and working poor Washington families, who have no alternatives to their local health care providers, as well as LGBTQ individuals, who already face discrimination when they seek medical care.”

He added that the lawsuit was filed in Spokane because rural communities, including those in Eastern Washington, have access to fewer healthcare providers and are more likely to be impacted by the rule.

The ruling comes after a New York federal judge found in favor for 26 plaintiffs on Wednesday, saying that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had acted outside its power in promulgating a “conscience rule” that protected medical professionals and healthcare entities from being discriminated against if they refuse to cover for or perform medical services such as abortion, sterilization, or assisted suicide on religious or moral grounds.

Washington was one of the states and cities that brought a lawsuit against the Trump administration seeking to strike down the rule. Planned Parenthood, the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, and Public Health Solutions also sued the federal government in separate lawsuits.

HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told The Epoch Times on Nov. 7 in a statement that HHS and the Justice Department are reviewing the New York court’s decision and “will not comment on the pending litigation at this time.”

The rule was implemented as part of President Donald Trump’s vow to protect the fundamental rights of conscience and religious liberty. In May 2017, he signed an executive order to protect religious liberty. The rule was scheduled to begin later this month.

When the rule was implemented back in May, HHS’s Office for Civil Rights Director Roger Severino said the rule aims to protect healthcare entities and professionals from being bullied for declining to participate in actions that violate their conscience.

“Protecting conscience and religious freedom not only fosters greater diversity in health care, it’s the law,” Severino said at the time in a statement.

In the New York ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Engelmayer found that the department had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when making the rule while relying on “factually untrue” reasons for its promulgation.

“And the Court’s finding that the Rule was promulgated arbitrarily and capriciously calls into question the validity and integrity of the rulemaking venture itself,” Engelmayer wrote in his 147-page decision (pdf). “Indeed, the Court has found that HHS’s stated justification for undertaking rulemaking in the first place—a purported ‘significant increase’ in civilian complaints relating to the Conscience Provisions—was factually untrue.”

The New York judge also agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that the HHS had acted outside its power by implementing a rule that would threaten federal funding to healthcare providers who do not comply.

“The ultimate penalty claimed by the Rule exceeds that authority because no law authorizes HHS to terminate all of a recipient’s HHS funding for a violation,” he wrote.

The judge acknowledged that the conscience rules “recognize and protect undeniably important rights” and said his decision leaves the department the freedom to “consider and promulgate rules governing these provisions” but added the agency had to do so within its authority.

While the plaintiffs celebrated the New York ruling, the decision received criticism from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) who called it an “absurd mush.”

“The point of the First Amendment—especially the free exercise of religion—is to protect the conscience rights of Americans. In this country, government doesn’t get to tell you that your faith is fine on Sunday at church but not Monday at work. The Trump administration ought to defend basic conscience rights all the way to the Supreme Court,” Sasse said.

Follow Janita on Twitter: @janitakan
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