In a devastating blow to LGBTQ people seeking medical care, The Trump Administration has announced protections for healthcare workers refusing service on the basis of moral objections Thursday.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights to oversee the new rule.
Under the rule, healthcare workers can deny service to transgender patients, people seeking abortions, and others on the basis of religious or moral objections. The addition of “moral objections” carves out a new avenue for discrimination against LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups. Typically, LGBTQ opponents have claimed sincerely held religious beliefs as as basis for discrimination.
Jocelyn Samuels, former Director of HHS OCR under President Obama and Williams Institute Executive Director, denounced the rule.
“Research demonstrates the health disparities and discrimination to which the transgender community is subject,” she says in a statement. “This new rule is likely to result in denials of critical health care to this vulnerable community in ways that will fundamentally undermine their health and wellbeing.”
The National Center for Transgender Equality Policy Director Harper Jean Tobin slammed the rule in a statement.
“This is the use of religion to hurt people because you disapprove of who they are,” Tobin says. “Any rule that grants a license to discriminate would be a disgrace and a mockery of the principle of religious freedom we all cherish. That would be an invitation to deny life-saving care.”
Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, has vowed to take the rule to court.
“We may not know exactly what this new division will look like in practice, but we do know that this means they prioritize religious liberty over the health and civil rights of women, transgender people, and others,” Melling says. “They are prioritizing providers’ beliefs over patients’ health and lives. This administration isn’t increasing freedomthey’re paving the way for discrimination.”
The rule is expected to have far-reaching implications for LGBTQ patients.
HHS OCR Director Roger Severino claimed in the announcement laws protecting religious freedom are only words on paper if not enforced.
“No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice,” Severino says. “For too long, governments big and small have treated conscience claims with hostility instead of protection, but change is coming and it begins here and now.”
Severino has a history of working to dismantle protections for LGBTQ people as former Director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.
It’s not the first time he has argued that medical providers should be able to refuse treatment to trans patients. Last year, he fiercely argued against Affordable Care Act gender identity protections.
“They effectively require controversial procedures, such as ‘sex-reassignment’ surgery, that respected medical professionals argue have not been proven to be effective in treating serious mental health conditions,” Severino wrote.
The HHS rule comes on the heels of an extreme anti-LGBTQ bill enacted in Mississippi in October. The Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act allows individuals, government, entities and providers deny LGBTQ people service on the basis of “sincerely held religious belief.