Federal judge overturns Trump's 'conscience' rule protecting providers who deny care for religious reasons

A federal judge vacated the Trump administration's conscience rights rule in its entirety. (Getty Images)

A federal judge in New York today struck down the Trump administration’s so-called conscience rights rule that would have allowed healthcare workers to decline to provide services that conflict with their moral or religious beliefs.

In a 147-page opinion issued Tuesday, Judge Paul A. Engelmayer of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York vacated the rule entirely, just weeks before it was scheduled to take effect on Nov. 22.

The judge said that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which issued the final rule last May, did not have the authority to impose major portions of the rule. The judge also said that HHS’ claims that it issued the rule because of complaints made to it from healthcare workers was not backed up by evidence.

The Trump administration issued the rule to protect healthcare workers who want to opt out of providing care or services, such as abortions, that violate their conscience.

HHS declined to comment on the judge’s decision. "HHS, together with DOJ [the Department of Justice], is reviewing the court’s opinion and so will not comment on the pending litigation at this time," the department said in an email to FierceHealthcare.

The judge’s decision consolidated three lawsuits, including one filed by New York state and 22 other states and municipalities, as well as legal action brought by Planned Parenthood and the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA).

RELATED: HHS issues new rule with 'conscience' protections for healthcare workers

“Today, the court safeguarded the public’s health by striking down the Trump administration’s healthcare refusal rule,” Clare Coleman, president and CEO NFPRHA said in a statement.

“This unlawful rule is an outright attack on the health and wellness of millions of people across the country, and the court heard clear and compelling arguments about the harm communities face when our healthcare system is distorted to the point in which a patient’s healthcare needs are not paramount,” she said.

Opponents had dubbed the rule “the healthcare refusal” rule and argued in lawsuits filed last spring after the HHS issued the final rule that it would reduce access to healthcare, particularly for women, LGBTQ individuals and other vulnerable populations.

A coalition of 23 states and municipalities filed a lawsuit in a Manhattan federal court asking a judge to declare the rule unconstitutional and in excess of HHS’ statutory jurisdiction.

RELATED: New 'conscience' rule: Proponents say it protects healthcare workers' rights, opponents fear 'free pass' for discrimination

In a twitter post, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had argued against the rule, praised the judge’s ruling. “We just defeated the Trump administration’s rule that would have allowed healthcare providers to deny patients information and treatment based on personal religious or moral beliefs. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right, but it cannot be used to harm others,” the ACLU said.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who led the coalition that filed the lawsuit, said the judge invalidated the law and blocked it from taking effect.

“Healthcare is a basic right that should never be subject to political games,” she said in a statement. “Once again, the courts have blocked the Trump Administration from implementing a discriminatory rule that would only hurt Americans. The refusal of care rule was an unlawful attempt to allow healthcare providers to openly discriminate and refuse to provide necessary healthcare to patients based on providers’ ‘religious beliefs or moral objections.’”

At a time when the future of reproductive rights is uncertain, further restricting access to reproductive healthcare in the name of religious freedom would be especially harmful to patients, said the group Physicians for Reproductive Health.

“This rule is a serious threat to healthcare access and the health and well being of people across the country. The impact will be felt most by women, people of color and LGBTQIA patients, who are more likely to face discrimination and be refused healthcare like abortion and contraception,” said Meera Shah, M.D., a family medicine physician in New York and a fellow with the group.  

“It’s time for the Trump-Pence administration to stop trying to dismantle the policies that help keep people healthy and safe,” she said in a statement.