Judicial activism from the federal bench has reared its ugly head yet again, striking a blow against religious freedom.
An Obama-appointed federal judge just vacated a new “conscience” rule promulgated by the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) set to go into effect later this month that would have strengthened protections for health care workers who objected to providing certain services based on moral or religious grounds, Fox News reported.
Conscience rule tossed
The new rule, issued earlier this year by a new division within the Office of Civil Rights in HHS, would have strengthened enforcement and oversight of preexisting regulations that protected doctors, nurses, and other health care providers from performing certain medical services to which they have a religious or moral objection, such as abortions, delivering vaccines derived from fetal tissue, or referring patients for end-of-life care, among other things.
Primarily, the rule would have allowed HHS to revoke federal funding for any of the roughly 600,000 hospitals, clinics, and other entities that provide health care if those entities failed to comply in respecting the religious, moral, or conscientious objections of those they employ.
In a statement about the judge’s ruling, Deputy White House Press Secretary Judd Deere said: “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.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who is staunchly pro-life and called the ruling “absurd mush,” 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.”
Judge: HHS rule “coercive”
According to Fox, the decision was handed down by Manhattan’s U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer, an Obama appointee, who said the HHS rule was “coercive” and dismissed the entire basis for the rule as being “factually untrue.” Engelmayer ruled that there was a lack of evidence supporting the agency’s claim that the HHS regulation was necessary due to the volume of complaints it had received from workers whose rights had been denied by their employers.
NPR reported that the judge held that HHS exceeded its authority, enacted the rule “arbitrarily and capriciously” and had violated federal laws in “numerous, fundamental, and far-reaching” ways, prompting him to dismiss the rule in its entirety.
Roger Severino, director of HHS’s Office of Civil Rights, said in a statement issued when the rule was first announced in May: “This rule ensures that health care 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.”
However, opponents of the rule countered that all it did was allow for discrimination by health care workers, and multiple lawsuits were filed by more than two dozen states, municipalities, and other organizations such as Planned Parenthood, with the state of New York taking the lead, according to Politico. The group of lawsuits was eventually consolidated into the case over which Judge Engelmayer presided.
Religious liberty hangs in the balance
This ruling is problematic, to say the least, as it increases the risk that doctors, nurses, and other health care workers will be forced against their will to provide services or perform procedures that violate their most fundamental moral principles or religious beliefs. The increased enforcement and oversight this rule would have afforded those professionals will sadly never be put into effect unless Judge Engelmayer’s decision is ultimately overturned.
Hopefully, the Trump administration will mount a successful appeal of what is a truly unconscionable ruling — all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary — so that the religious and moral liberties of workers in the health and medical fields receive the protection they deserve.