National News

Trump Gives Health Workers New Religious Liberty Protections

Posted January 18, 2018 10:16 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced Thursday that it was expanding religious freedom protections for doctors, nurses and other health care workers who object to performing procedures like abortion and gender reassignment surgery, satisfying religious conservatives who have pushed for legal sanctuary from the federal government.

The new steps, which include the creation of an oversight entity within the Department of Health and Human Services called the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, are the latest efforts by President Donald Trump to meet the demands of one of his most loyal constituencies. They coincide with Trump’s planned address on Friday to abortion opponents at the annual March for Life in Washington.

For religious conservatives, the new protections address long-held concerns that religious people could be forced to comply with laws and regulations that violate their religious beliefs. Roger Severino, the director of the office for civil rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, promised that he and his staff would investigate every complaint of a violation of “conscience rights” protected by federal law.

But civil rights, gay rights and abortion rights groups, as well as some medical organizations, expressed alarm at a move they described as part of a systematic effort by the Trump administration to legitimize discrimination. Their concern is not limited to the executive branch. Trump has appointed judges to powerful appellate courts at a rate faster than any new president since Richard M. Nixon, and the Republican-controlled Senate is working to speed the approval of Trump’s lower-level district court nominees.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Senate health committee, said the administration was using the civil rights office as “a tool to restrict access to health care for people who are transgender and women.”

Eric D. Hargan, the acting secretary of health and human services, said that the creation of the new civil rights unit carried out an executive order issued last year by Trump, who said that religious people would no longer be “bullied by the federal government because of their religious beliefs.”

Severino said that several federal laws protected the “conscience rights” of health care providers, and he reported that complaints of violations had increased significantly since Trump was elected. From 2008 to October 2016, the civil rights office received 10 complaints, Severino said, and since the election it has received 34.

For too long, Severino said, the federal government has ignored such complaints or treated them with “outright hostility.”

The administration is drafting rules to define the circumstances in which health care workers could refuse to provide services to which they had religious or moral objections.

The department’s announcement was greeted with alarm and applause, a testament to the divisions over the hot-button social issues of abortion, gender and sexual identity.

Social conservatives said the new unit would be a bulwark of religious liberty.

“President Trump’s promises are becoming a reality,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council. “Americans should not be forced to choose between their faith and their desire to help patients.”

Critics said the administration was giving health care providers a license to discriminate and raised the possibility that some doctors might deny fertility treatments to lesbian couples and that some pharmacists might refuse to fill prescriptions for certain types of contraceptives. In such situations, they said, patients could suffer, and health care workers could violate professional or ethical obligations.

Dr. Hal C. Lawrence III, the chief executive of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said the government should be helping women get the care they need, not putting up new impediments.

“No individual, employer, politician or entity should be given legal cover to deny a patient needed medical care,” Lawrence said.

The White House’s efforts to appeal to the religious right appear to have given Trump a thick insulation from the scandals that might otherwise undermine his support among churchgoing conservatives, like the recent allegations that he cheated on his wife with a pornographic film actress who was reportedly paid $130,000 in hush money shortly before the 2016 election. In recent months, Trump has ordered the Pentagon to stop accepting transgender people in the armed services, announced his intention to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and released a revised shortlist of potential nominees to a future Supreme Court vacancy that included the addition of five conservative judges.

If the report involving the actress bothered religious conservatives, most were keeping quiet.

“We continue to support him because he is doing what he promised he would do,” said Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. “That does not mean we endorse everything he does.”

A few evangelical Christians warned that Trump was making their entire movement look like fools.

Writing on his website this week, the blogger and radio host Erick Erickson said, “It is harder and harder to champion a sound policy, like tax reform, regulatory reform, or even some stellar judicial picks because they are all tainted by the man whose signature is on the paperwork.”

“Our increasing national affection for cults of personality will affect the conservative agenda moving forward on issues like life, the Second Amendment, and individualism itself,” Erickson added. “As the president wraps himself in those issues, many Americans will connect them to the farce.”

Outside the religious conservative movement, the recent moves have won little applause.

Fatima Goss Graves, the president of the National Women’s Law Center, a research and advocacy group, said that, far from protecting religious liberty, the new unit would protect health workers who “use their religious or moral beliefs to deny patients care.”

Rachel B. Tiven, the chief executive of Lambda Legal, a gay rights group, said the new initiative could lead to an increase in discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. Discrimination, she said, is already widespread, as “LGBT people have been turned away from hospitals and doctors’ offices.”

As a presidential candidate, Trump expressed strong support for religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who challenged Obama administration policies that generally required employers to provide insurance coverage of birth control for women.

In October, the Trump administration issued rules allowing many employers to opt out of providing such coverage if they had religious or moral objections. But in December, two U.S. District Court judges blocked the rules, saying they were inconsistent with the Affordable Care Act.