Trump administration adds HHS unit allowing ‘religious freedom’ rights for workers
Roger Servino, director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, announces the formation of the division on Conscience and Religious Freedom on Thursday. Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Trump administration adds HHS unit allowing ‘religious freedom’ rights for workers

The Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday that it’s forming a new division to protect health workers who object to certain procedures based on their religious beliefs — a move that critics are saying could give health workers a “license to discriminate.”

The Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom, part of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, will be tasked with “[enforcing] our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom.” It could allow health care workers to refuse to perform abortions or provide treatment to members of the LGBTQ community if they say they object on religious or moral grounds.

“Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced,” OCR Director Roger Severino said in a statement on Thursday. “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.”

But groups like Planned Parenthood slammed the move, saying the new division could lead to women, LGBTQ individuals and other marginalized groups being denied necessary treatment.

“This is the Trump-Pence administration using the government office whose mission is to protect against discrimination, to instead to give providers license to discriminate,” Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government relations for Planned Parenthood, said in a statement. “While this move is shocking, it’s not surprising. This is a part of a systematic agenda by the Trump-Pence administration to advance their own ideology at the expense of all Americans.”

“Trump’s HHS continues to pursue their dangerous and discriminatory agenda under the guise of religious liberty,” the Center for Reproductive Rights tweeted.

LGBTQ groups also condemned the move, promising to fight the new division.

“Health care workers have a professional and ethical obligation to provide health care to all who need it” Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “Every American deserves access to medically necessary health care, and that health care should not be determined by the personal opinions of individual health care providers or administrative staff.”

The creation of the new division is just the latest offering to social conservatives from the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump in May signed a controversial “religious liberty” executive order that, among other things, allowed organizations to skirt an Affordable Care Act provision requiring them to provide insurance coverage for services they object to, such as contraceptive care.

The establishment of the new HHS division would seemingly kill a provision of the ACA that “prohibits the denial of health care or health coverage based on an individual’s sex, including discrimination based on pregnancy, gender identity, and sex stereotyping.” The provision also requires health care providers to “treat individuals consistent with their gender identity.”

“President Trump promised the American people that his administration would vigorously uphold the rights of conscience and religious freedom,” acting HHS Secretary Eric D. Hargan said in a statement. “That promise is being kept today.”

But Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, called the administration’s move “blatantly bigoted” and warned that it would “harm transgender and gender non-conforming Americans.”

“Any healthcare worker who has moral objections to providing medically necessary care to an entire vulnerable population is in the wrong line of work,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement. “Denying a transgender person – or any person – life-saving care if they walk into an emergency room is far from a moral act, it is unjust and dangerous.”

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