- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Blue state leaders filed suit Tuesday against a Trump administration rule that shields doctors or nurses who object on religious grounds to participating in abortions or other medical procedures.

The lawsuit says the conscience protections, which thrilled President Trump’s pro-life base, are overly broad and could undermine care, while threatening billions of dollars in federal aid if states and cities refuse to comply.

“This change to put providers above patients comes at a dangerous price: it will undermine the plaintiffs’ ability to administer their health care systems and deliver patient care effectively and efficiently,” the lawsuit says.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is leading the lawsuit, wants federal judges in the Southern District of New York to enjoin the rule, before it takes effect this summer.

President Trump broadcast the new rule during a National Day of Prayer celebration at the White House, portraying it as his latest effort to safeguard religious liberty.

Under the rule, doctors and health care entities would not be forced to make referrals or provide, pay for or offer coverage of procedures like abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide if it violates their beliefs.

Hospitals, universities and other facilities receiving federal money must verify they are complying with 25 federal statutes that preserve conscience and religious-freedom rights, officials said. The government may strip them of funding if they fail to do so.

The Health and Human Services Department says the rules are designed to make sure hospitals, clinics and other provides do not skirt existing laws designed to protect providers who object to offering certain services.

Yet Ms. James’ office said the rule “drastically expands the number of providers eligible to make such refusals, ranging from ambulance drivers to emergency room doctors to receptionists to customer service representatives at insurance companies.”

She also argued health care facilities will have no recourse when health-care workers reject an employer’s attempt to accommodate their religious beliefs.

Opponents of the rule are particularly worried the rule could strip services from women and LGBTQ patients.

The suing states say they face the “Hobson’s choice” of altering their standards of care or risking the loss of federal funds.

“This financial exposure could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars each year,” the lawsuit said, adding that racial and ethnic minorities will be disproportionately harmed by the loss of federal money.

Ms. James argues the rule takes an end-run around Congress’ power over the purse, and violates the Constitution’s establishment clause by forcing health providers to “accommodate the religious objections of their employees, whatever the cost.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on the suit, though HHS said its rule was carefully vetted.

“The rule gives life and enforcement tools to conscience protection laws that have been on the books for decades,” said Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights.

“HHS finalized the conscience rule after more than a year of careful consideration and after analyzing over 242,000 public comments. We will defend the rule vigorously,” he added.

Besides New York state, plaintiffs joining the lawsuit include the City of New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, the City of Chicago, and Cook County, Illinois.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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