Health care workers who want to refuse to treat patients because of religious or moral beliefs will have a new defender in the Trump Administration.
The top civil rights official at the Department of Health and Human Services is creating the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom to protect doctors, nurses and other health care workers who refuse to take part in procedures like abortion, or treat certain people – especially transgender patients — because of moral or religious objections.
“No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice,” said Roger Severino, the director of HHS’ Office for Civil Rights.
The establishment of the division reverses an Obama-era policy that barred health care workers from refusing to treat transgender individuals, or people who have had or are seeking abortions.
That Obama rule was challenged in court by the Franciscan Alliance, a Christian health care organization in Texas, and a judge in 2016 blocked enforcement as the case played out in court.
The new division won’t have to wait to get to work. A pediatric nurse at the Winnebago County Health Department in Illinois filed a complaint with HHS on Tuesday because she objects to her employer requiring that she be trained to make referrals to providers of abortion services or to help woman get abortion drugs, according to the Rockford Register Star.
Opponents of the new division are preparing their own legal challenges. “Medical standards, not religious belief, should guide medical care. Denying patients health care is not liberty. Choosing your patients based on their gender or gender expression is not freedom,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement.
She said the group is ready to sue HHS.
It’s not the first time in the Trump administration that HHS’s Office of Civil Rights has moved to protect people with moral or religious objections to some kinds of health care. In October, the agency allowed employers to refuse to pay for birth control coverage.
“Health providers should have the ability to live their religious beliefs without fear of workplace discrimination,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., in a statement.
Lankford has long advocated for such protections and has sponsored a bill called the Conscience Protection Act to codify the rules.
HHS says on its website that it won’t allow health care providers to discriminate based on race, color, national origin, age or disability.