Trump Gives Health Workers New Religious Liberty Protections

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.

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.

 
The Trump administration announced on 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 Trump to meet the demands of one of his most loyal constituencies. They coincide with Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s lower-level district court nominees.

Senator 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 Mr. Trump, who said that religious people would no longer be “bullied by the federal government because of their religious beliefs.”

Mr. 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 Mr. Trump was elected. From 2008 to October 2016, the civil rights office received 10 complaints, Mr. Severino said, and since the election it has received 34.

For too long, Mr. 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.

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