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Federal court invalidates new HHS rule offering conscience protections for health care providers

A new rule issued by the Trump administration, which grants broad conscience protections to medical institutions and personnel who object to providing certain medical services on religious or moral grounds, has been vacated by a federal judge in New York. The judge ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exceeded its authority under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) in crafting the rule.

In a lengthy opinion, the court analyzed the precise language of the proposal and of the 30 separate laws whose enforcement would be impacted. The judge found that the rule amounts to substantive changes in those laws that can only be enacted or authorized by Congress. Furthermore, the court emphasized, the stated justification for the rule was not supported by the facts.

Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

The APA violations that the Court has found… are numerous, fundamental, and far-reaching. The Court’s finding that HHS lacked substantive rule-making authority as to three of the five principal Conscience Provisions nullifies the heart of the Rule as to these statutes. … And the Court’s finding that the Rule was promulgated arbitrarily and capriciously calls into question the validity and integrity of the rulemaking venture itself. Indeed, the Court has found that HHS’s stated justification for undertaking rulemaking in the first place—a purported “significant increase” in civilian complaints relating to the Conscience Provisions—was factually untrue.A new rule issued by the Trump administration, which grants broad conscience protections to medical institutions and personnel who object to providing certain medical services on religious or moral grounds, has been vacated by a federal judge in New York. The judge ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exceeded its authority under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) in crafting the rule.

The court did not agree, however, with the plaintiffs’ argument that the rules are a violation of the Establishment Clause. Pointing to the fact that the HHS’ proposal “equally recognizes secular (“moral”) and religious objections to the covered medical procedures,” the judge wrote that they do not favor religion in a way that would violate the separation of church and state.

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The judge’s ruling grants summary judgment for three sets of plaintiffs – including numerous states – whose lawsuits had been consolidated in this matter.

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