US HHS Issues Revised Rule Striking Earlier Rule that Allowed Health Care Workers to Deny Care for Religious Beliefs

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December 29, 2022

Today, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a new proposed rule rescinding much of a Trump-era rule that invited any health care worker – including doctors, nurses, EMTs, administrators, janitors and clerical staff – to deny medical treatment, information and services to patients because of personal religious or moral beliefs. 

Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director for Litigation Camilla B. Taylor issued the following statement: 

“While the earlier discriminatory and dangerous rule has been blocked for more than three years, it nonetheless loomed ominously over both health care providers and potential patients, representing the very real threat of denying care and being denied care when most in need. We are grateful that HHS has taken an important step toward removing the prior rule’s explicit invitation to discriminate against pregnant people and anyone in need of gender-affirming care from the books. No patient– no matter their religion, sex, race, gender identity, or sexual orientation – should fear being denied care when most vulnerable.” 

The Denial of Care Rule, which was issued in May 2019, confronted health care facilities with the real risk losing essential federal funding if they did not grant employees carte blanche to deny services. Because the rule was confusing and infeasible to implement, many health care facilities could have been forced to eliminate services such as reproductive and LGBTQ care, leaving millions across the United States without access to critical health care. 

The rule was blocked six months later in three separate federal lawsuits filed in three separate federal districts: the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, and the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Lambda Legal, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the County of Santa Clara filed the third lawsuit, where in his November 19, 2019, ruling, Judge William Alsup characterized the rule as “saturated with error.” 

The plaintiffs in Lambda Legal’s lawsuit include the County of Santa Clara, which runs an extensive health and hospital system that serves as a safety-net provider for the county’s 1.9 million residents; the health providers Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, Pa., Center on Halsted in Chicago, Hartford GYN in Connecticut, Los Angeles LGBT Center, Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia, Trust Women Seattle and Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, D.C.; the associations AGLP, GLMA and Medical Students for Choice; and five doctors. 

You can see the new proposed rule here. More information about County of Santa Clara v. HHS is available here