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World & Nation

Judge voids Trump-initiated rule letting clinicians refuse healthcare services on moral or religious grounds

Abortion Laws
People hold signs during a protest against recently passed abortion ban bills at the Georgia state Capitol building on May 21 in Atlanta.
(Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)

A federal judge Wednesday struck down a new rule, not yet in effect, that allowed healthcare clinicians to refuse participation in abortions and other services on moral or religious grounds.

U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer in New York said he was tossing out the rule in its entirety.

The decision came after 19 states, the District of Columbia, three local governments, health organizations and others sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The rule let clinicians object to providing abortions and other services that conflict with their moral and religious beliefs.

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Engelmayer said his ruling came in three consolidated lawsuits.

Plaintiffs had argued that the rule was unconstitutional because it would be discriminatory and stall access to healthcare for populations nationwide.

The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Clare Coleman, president of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Assn., one of the plaintiffs, said the group was “heartened by today’s ruling.”

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“This unlawful rule is an outright attack on the health and wellness of millions of people across the country, and the court heard clear and compelling arguments about the harm communities face when our healthcare system is distorted to the point in which a patient’s healthcare needs are not paramount,” she said.

New York Atty. Gen. Letitia James said the state sued in part because the rule “was an unlawful attempt to allow healthcare providers to openly discriminate and refuse to provide necessary healthcare to patients based on providers’ ‘religious beliefs or moral objections.’”

The rule emerged after President Trump in May 2017 signed an executive order instructing the attorney general to issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law.

In May, the Department of Health and Human Services published a rule applying more than 30 “conscience provisions” that must be complied with for an entity to receive federal funding.

Lawsuits challenging the rule argued that the department exceeded its authority in establishing the rule, violated the Constitution and acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in creating it.

Engelmayer, who was appointed by President Obama, wrote that existing laws already define the duties of employers with respect to religious objections.

The 2019 rule, which had been set to take effect late this month, would effectively supersede existing law in the healthcare field, he said.

The judge rejected arguments that the rule was “mere housekeeping.” Rather, he said, it relocates “the who, what, when, where, and how — of conscience protection under federal law.”

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The Department of Health and Human Services lacked authority to create major portions of its rule, including to terminate an entity’s federal health funding if it violates one of the provisions.

At the time the rule was issued, Engelmayer noted, the president said it conferred “new protections.”

The rule, for the first time, put limits on an employer’s ability to inquire about conscience objections, the judge said.

“These limits have clear potential to inhibit the employer’s ability to organize workplace arrangements to avoid inefficiencies and dislocations,” he said.


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