Federal judge blocks HHS 'conscience rule' for health care workers
Posted November 6, 2019 4:40 p.m. EST
CNN — A federal judge in New York has blocked the Department of Health and Human Services' so-called conscience rule, which lets health care workers who cite moral or religious reasons opt out of providing certain medical procedures, such as abortion, sterilization and assisted suicide.
"The Court vacates the 2019 rule in its entirety," US District Judge Paul Engelmayer wrote in an opinion Wednesday, noting that existing federal conscience provisions "accommodate religious and moral objections to health care services provided by recipients of federal funds" and "recognize and protect undeniably important rights."
"The Court's decision today leaves HHS at liberty to consider and promulgate rules governing these provisions," Engelmayer added. "In the future, however, the agency must do so within the confines of the APA and the Constitution."
The Administrative Procedure Act is a federal law that governs the way agencies can propose and establish regulations.
The ruling comes as a blow to the Trump administration, which has put a focus on religious freedom protections for health care workers by creating a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within HHS last year and enforcing existing laws banning private health care providers that receive federal funds from requiring employees to participate in abortions or sterilizations.
The so-called conscience rule, which was slated to go into effect on November 22, has drawn eight challenges across four different federal district courts filed by a slew of states and reproductive health groups. Reproductive rights advocates argue that the rule would hurt those seeking reproductive care and in the LGBTQ community, with the idea of religious liberty used to justify endangering patients.
New York, several other states and reproductive rights groups filed a challenge after HHS unveiled the rule last year, and President Donald Trump announced the final rule in May.
HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told CNN in a statement on Wednesday that "HHS, together with DOJ, is reviewing the court's opinion and so will not comment on the pending litigation at this time."
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a proponent of religious protection laws, called on Wednesday for the Trump administration to pursue a Supreme Court fight over the rule.
"This decision is absurd mush," he said in a statement. "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," he added.
The suit's plaintiffs cheered the decision as a key win protecting health care access for all patients.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James promised to continue fighting the rule, condemning it as "an unlawful attempt to allow health care providers to openly discriminate and refuse to provide necessary health care to patients based on providers' 'religious beliefs or moral objections.'"
Planned Parenthood acting president Alexis McGill Johnson said the rule "put patients' needs last and threatened their ability to access potentially lifesaving health care. Everyone deserves to access the health care they need."
"Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs," Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, senior staff attorney with the Reproductive Freedom Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "But religious beliefs do not include a license to discriminate, to deny essential care, or to cause harm to others."