The Trump administration announced Thursday that it will create a new Health Department agency under the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that will be responsible for investigating complaints filed by workers claiming that their employers have violated their religious rights.
The Conscience and Religious Freedom Division will help to protect health workers who refuse to perform abortions or treat transgender patients on religious or moral grounds.
The OCR has primarily focused on enforcing patient safety and privacy concerns before today’s announcement.
“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,” OCR Director Roger Severino said at the announcement ceremony Thursday morning.
“We are saying, with the launch of this division, you do not need to shed your religious identity, you do not need to shed your moral convictions to be a part of the public square.”
According to the OCR’s updated website, the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division will enforce “laws and regulations that protect conscience and prohibit coercion on issues such as abortion and assisted suicide” in HHS-funded or conducted programs.”
The new agency represents a major victory for religious and anti-abortion groups.
“This is a welcome change from the Obama administration’s stubborn refusal to enforce federal laws that prohibit discrimination against health care entities,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Health Committee, said she is “deeply troubled by reports of the unconscionable approach being considered by President Trump’s Administration to use the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services as a tool to restrict access to health care for people who are transgender and women.”
“This would be yet another attempt to let ideology dictate who is able to get the care they need. Any approach that would deny or delay health care to someone and jeopardize their wellbeing for ideological reasons is unacceptable. We need to work to ensure everyone has access to quality, affordable health care, no matter who they are.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced it would take legal action against the Trump administration.
“Denying patients health care is not liberty,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the ACLU.
“Choosing your patients based on their gender or gender expression is not freedom. Should the administration choose to move forward to implement a discriminatory policy, we will see them in court.”