July 1, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – President Donald Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has agreed to put off implementing its conscience protection rule until November so the administration can contend with a lawsuit involving the policy.
The rule exempting healthcare workers from being forced to take part in abortion and other morally objectionable procedures was supposed to go into effect July 22, but HHS and its opponents in the lawsuit came to mutual agreement Friday to delay a final ruling on the policy until November 22.
HHS said it was the “most efficient way to adjudicate” the rule, ABC News reports. A federal judge in San Francisco allowed the change on Saturday.
“The federal government is giving health care providers free license to openly discriminate and refuse care to patients – a gross misinterpretation of religious freedom that will have devastating consequences on communities throughout the country,” New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) said in a statement after filing the lawsuit.
That same month another group, including Lambda Legal, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in conjunction with Santa Clara County in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, according to The Hill.
The second group also argued the rule was unconstitutional, and said it will cause “mass confusion among health care providers and is completely infeasible to implement” and might lead to health care facilities doing away with “reproductive” and LGBTQ services altogether.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) and the City of San Francisco have filed lawsuits as well.
“The Trump administration is trying to systematically limit access to critical medical care for women, the LGBTQ community, and other vulnerable patients,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement regarding the decision to postpone the rule’s implementation. “Hospitals are no place to put personal beliefs above patient care.”
San Francisco would have faced losing about $1 billion in federal funding for health care-related programs if the rule took effect, the statement from Herrera’s office said.
Trump: Religious liberty is ‘the bedrock of American life’
Trump announced the rule, titled Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care; Delegations of Authority, on May 2 during his remarks in observation of the National Day of Prayer.
The rule “ensures that HHS implements the full set of tools appropriate for enforcing” laws that exempt healthcare workers from “having to provide, participate in, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for, services such as abortion, sterilization, or assisted suicide,” according to HHS.
It also “clarifies what covered entities need to do to comply with applicable conscience provisions,” “requires applicants for HHS federal financial assistance to provide assurances and certifications of compliance,” and “specifies compliance obligations for covered entities.”
“Every citizen has the absolute right to live according to the teachings of their faith and the convictions of their heart,” Trump said during the May 2 ceremony held in the White House’s Rose Garden. “This is the bedrock of American life. To protect this heritage, my administration has strongly defended religious liberty – two words you haven’t heard much about for a long period of time – but now you’re hearing it all the time, religious liberty.”
“Earlier this week I took action to ensure that federal employees can take paid time off to observe religious holy days,” he said. “And just today we finalized new protections of conscience rights for physicians, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, students, and faith-based charities.”
Pro-life, family, and Christian groups welcomed the rule.
Trump’s previous record on religious liberty and conscience has been favorable toward conscience.
In January 2018, his HHS announced the creation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), a new division within HHS’s civil rights office to enforce conscience protection and religious freedom for healthcare workers.
The new division was tasked with enforcing “laws and regulations that protect conscience and prohibit coercion on issues such as abortion and assisted suicide” and others in HHS-funded or conducted programs, and also enforcing statutes protecting “the free exercise of religion and prohibit discrimination” in HHS programs.
The new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division indicated an important change for the OCR, which also oversees enforcement of laws concerning security and privacy of people’s health information. It brought back to the forefront enforcement of conscience and religious liberty laws in the healthcare field, a turnaround from the Obama administration’s stance.
In its first enforcement action early this year, the OCR sent a notice of violation to California Attorney General Becerra regarding the state’s so-called Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, which targeted pro-life pregnancy centers.
The Act had forced the pro-life centers to provide written information on how to obtain an abortion in the state at taxpayer expense, and required centers without medical licenses to post disclaimers that they do not offer medical services. The U.S. Supreme Court had struck the law down in June 2018, and in November of last year a federal appeals court had enjoined the state from enforcing the law against the pregnancy centers.
The Trump administration’s OCR had undertaken an independent investigation into the California law and found the state in violation of the federal Weldon and Coats-Snowe amendments and the U.S. Constitution.
In May 2018, Trump signed an executive order to create the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, a new office to represent the rights of religious Americans and include their perspective in ongoing policymaking.
In October 2017, Trump ended the Obama Administration’s HHS contraceptive mandate requiring that employers violate their consciences and participate in the provision of employees’ contraceptives and abortifacient drugs.