Religious Health Care Workers Will Now Have the Right to Refuse

health care workers

During a National Day of Prayer event at the White House yesterday, President Trump mentioned a new rule aimed at guarding religious freedom. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), released a final 440-page ruling Thursday that protects health care workers from participating in procedures that violate their personal beliefs.

The new law, expected to take effect in about two months, safeguards the jobs of medical professionals who refuse to be involved with abortion, assisted suicide, sterilization and other procedures that go against their faith or moral convictions.

“Finally, laws prohibiting government-funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law,” says OCR director Roger Severino. “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. Protecting conscience and religious freedom not only fosters greater diversity in healthcare, it’s the law.”

New Law Consolidates Existing Regulations

More than two dozen separate laws were on the books to guard health care workers’ civil rights, but this new ruling pulls them together and expands the protections. “This rule is consistent with decades of federal conscience law,” says Jonathan Imbody of the Christian Medical Association. “Education about and enforcement of these laws has long been neglected.”

The new rule extends beyond medical facilities to social-service groups such as adoption agencies. It also protects employees who won’t refer a patient elsewhere for a procedure. Health care institutions that violate workers’ rights could lose federal funding.

The new law is “a victory for common sense and religious diversity,” says Montse Alvarado, executive director of Becket, a religious-liberty law firm. “We need more health care in this country, not less,” she adds. “We all win if nurses, doctors and other health care professionals can heal others without fear of being forced from their life’s work because of their religious beliefs.”

Opponents Say Law Will Limit Health Care Access

The American Civil Liberties Union is one of several groups speaking out against the rule. “Denying kids health care because they have two moms is not religious liberty,” it tweeted. “Denying patients IVF because they are unmarried is not religious liberty. Denying patients surgery because they are trans is not religious liberty. Discrimination is not religious liberty.”

Americans United for Separation of Church & State calls the law the Denial of Care Rule. “It’s clear that women, LGBTQ people and religious minorities are the intended targets, but it doesn’t stop there,” says president and CEO Rachel Laser. “The rule is so broad that everyone—including sick children, pregnant women and senior citizens—is at risk. It is un-American for the Trump administration to authorize medical professionals to circumvent our shared secular values to deny patients lifesaving medical care.”

In January 2018, the administration established a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the OCR. Last week, HHS changed OCR’s mission statement to emphasize that the agency protects the “exercise of religious beliefs and moral convictions by individuals and institutions.”

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Stephanie Martin
Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 26 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.