Judge overturns Trump-backed 'conscience rule' to protect religious and moral freedoms of health care workers

A federal judge on Wednesday struck down a Trump administration rule that would have made it easier for medical providers to avoid performing abortions and other medical services on religious or moral grounds.

The rule was set to take effect Nov. 22.

U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer in Manhattan called the “conscience rule,” enacted by the Department of Health and Human Services, “coercive,” and said the basis for the rule’s enactment was “factually untrue.”

“Wherever the outermost line where persuasion gives way to coercion lies, the threat to pull all HHS funding here crosses it,” Engelmayer, an Obama appointee, wrote. The rule would have allowed HHS to revoke federal funds for care centers that failed to comply. The number of entities covered by the rule would have included more than 600,000 hospitals, dentist’s offices and others. It also included family planning clinics, medical schools and local governments. It was estimated to cost $394 million in the first year to implement and around $1 billion over five years, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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“The court’s finding that the rule was promulgated arbitrarily and capriciously calls into question the validity and integrity of the rulemaking venture itself,” said Engelmayer. “Indeed, the court has found that HHS’s stated justification for undertaking rule-making in the first place — a purported ’significant increase’ in civilian complaints relating to the conscience provisions — was factually untrue.”

“Where H.H.S. claimed that the rule was justified by complaints made to it, the administrative record reflects a yawning evidentiary gap,” Engelmayer continued, according to The New York Times.

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HHS said the regulation would protect health care workers who object to procedures such as abortion, administering vaccines derived from fetal tissue or referring patients for end-of-life care decisions on religious or moral grounds.

Federal statute already protects moral and religious rights of health care providers who work for recipients of federal funding, but the regulation would have increased enforcement and oversight. The judge saw no need for this.

The White House was not happy about the ruling. "An activist judge has blocked a common-sense rule implementing laws passed by Congress to protect the conscience rights of physicians and other health care clinicians. President Trump will always stand up for the religious rights of all Americans, including those in the health care industry," said Deputy White House Press Secretary Judd Deere.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R.-Neb., called the judge's decision "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 in a statement.

The rule came out of a new division in HHS’s Office for Civil Rights headed by Roger Severino, a former lawyer for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He has said doctors, nurses and other religious people in the medical field with deeply religious beliefs have been coerced into violating their principles on abortion or assisted suicide.

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HHS has been forging ahead with steps toward expanding religious liberties. On Nov. 2, the Trump administration proposed rolling back Obama-era regulations and allowing faith-based foster care and adoption facilities to continue receiving federal money even if they turn away same-sex couples on religious grounds.