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Federal Judge strikes HHS rule protecting right of conscience for individuals and health care providers

by | Nov 6, 2019

By Dave Andrusko

Office for Civil Rights Director Roger Severino

U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer of Manhattan took dead aim today at “Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care; Delegations of Authority,” an HHS rule that protects individuals and health care providers from discrimination on the basis of their exercise of conscience in HHS-funded programs.

In his 147-page decision, Judge Engelmayer, appointed by former President Barack Obama, said these protections “recognize and protect undeniably important rights,” but the government’s rulemaking “was sufficiently shot through with glaring legal defects.”

“Engelmayer’s decision covered a lawsuit by New York state and 22 other states and municipalities, as well as two lawsuits by Planned Parenthood and other healthcare providers,” Reuters reported.

Judge Engelmayer said the conscience rule “was unconstitutionally coercive because it would let the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) withhold billions of dollars of funding from hospitals, clinics, universities and other healthcare providers that did not comply,” according to Jonathan Stempel.

The rule had been scheduled to take effect on November 22.

As NRL News Today has reported on multiple occasions, the Trump administration has demonstrated its commitment to expanding religious liberty and protecting the right of conscience.

Here’s how Health and Human Services outlined its objectives in issuing the rule and the background:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced today the issuance of the final conscience rule that protects individuals and health care entities from discrimination on the basis of their exercise of conscience in HHS-funded programs. Just as OCR enforces other civil rights, the rule implements full and robust enforcement of approximately 25 provisions passed by Congress protecting longstanding conscience rights in healthcare.

The final rule fulfills President Trump’s promise to promote and protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious liberty, a promise he made when he signed an executive order in May 2017 protecting religious liberty. In October 2017, the Department of Justice issued guidance encouraging other Departments, including HHS, to implement and enforce all relevant religious freedom laws.

As a result, in January 2018, following the launch of its new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, HHS announced the proposed conscience rule. OCR received over 242,000 public comments, and analyzed and carefully considered all comments submitted from the public on the proposed conscience regulation before finalizing it.

“Finally, laws prohibiting government funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law,” said OCR Director Roger Severino. “This rule ensures that healthcare entities and professionals won’t be bullied out of the health care field because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience, including the taking of human life.”

When the final HHS rule was issued May 2, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, said, “I’m grateful that HHS is taking meaningful action to protect the conscience rights of all Americans,” adding, “Health care should be about saving life, not taking life. Health care providers should never be forced or coerced into participating in abortion. The Office for Civil Rights is now better empowered to protect individuals from having their moral convictions about the sanctity of human life violated.”

Rep. Smith is a cosponsor of HR 2014, the “Conscience Protection Act of 2019,” which passed the House of Representatives in previous Congresses. The bill would guarantee a private right of action for victims of abortion discrimination.

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