United States District Court Judge Paul Engelmayer, a President Obama appointee, has struck down a conscience rule issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The rule was designed to clarify and implement over 30 federal laws protecting health care providers from being forced to violate their conscience by participating in objectionable procedures such as abortion.
Judge Engelmayer, in a 147-page opinion, ruled that HHS overstepped its authority by expanding rights and obligations associated with pro-life laws such as the Church Amendments, the Weldon Amendment, the Coats-Snowe Amendment and many others. The judge noted that he took no issue with the conscience provisions of those federal laws, but stated that federal agencies must stay within their delegated authority granted under those laws when issuing agency rules and regulations.
The HHS rule, slated to go into effect on November 22, is in part the result of an ongoing emphasis on religious freedom and conscience protection by the White House. The HHS Office for Civil Rights and other agencies were tasked in a 2017 Executive Order with ensuring that agency rules and regulations provide the greatest degree of protection for religious liberties and conscience allowable under federal law.
The Administration’s efforts to protect religion and conscience thus far have been frustrated by the courts. In addition to this latest ruling, several federal appeals courts have blocked HHS’ expanded religious exemption to the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, which sought to help faith-based employers such as the Little Sisters of the Poor who object to providing coverage for contraceptives and sterilization in their employee health plans. The latter case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which hasn’t decided yet whether it will hear the Little Sisters’ case.
One sure-fire way of guaranteeing conscience rights, and even expanding them, is for Congress to pass laws that do so. However, with the House of Representatives controlled by Democrats at the moment, the likelihood of passing such legislation is virtually nil. Some opponents call laws protecting religious freedom a “license to discriminate.”
It’s also worth noting that all of these lawsuits attacking HHS’ attempt to protect conscience are brought by Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, in conjunction with sympathetic governments in blue states. It’s always good to know who is working against religion and conscience, and these lawsuits certainly make that clear.