Lambda Legal and other civil rights groups are asking a federal court to strike down a Health and Human Services Department “conscience” rule that is set to dramatically expand the situations in which health providers, insurers and others could refuse to provide or pay for services they say violate their religious or moral beliefs.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, claims the policy, which was published May 21, is unconstitutional and exceeds HHS’s statutory authority.
President Trump personally announced the rule during a speech before faith leaders who say the protections are necessary because of ineffectual enforcement of existing statutes protecting such decisions.
The plaintiffs represent a diverse group of health-care providers, community centers and LGBTQ and women’s rights groups across the country — from Seattle and Los Angeles to Allentown, Pa., and Washington, D.C. They emphasized that while transgender individuals may be most vulnerable to discrimination under the rule, it would affect all Americans.
“This rule erodes trust between patients and providers,” said Jamie Gliksberg, senior attorney at Lambda Legal. Gliksberg said there has always been a balance between patients’ right to care and providers’ right to decline services such as abortion, assisted suicide and sterilization.
The new policy, she said, “disturbs that balance.” It “creates a wholly new regime that elevates religious objections over all other interests and values,"according to the complaint,
Among the suit’s allegations are that the rule “violates patients’ rights to privacy, liberty, dignity, and autonomy” by imposing conditions that unduly burden patients’ access to medically necessary health care and “chills constitutionally protected First Amendment activity, such as a patient’s ability to disclose or express their sexual orientation.”
The rule is one of a number of new socially conservative HHS polices — such as new funding criteria for providers of family planning services that abortion providers fear will shut them out — that are under legal challenge.
Earlier this month, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed suit against HHS, saying the new conscience rule is discriminatory and prioritizes “providers’ religious beliefs over the health and lives of women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people, and other medically and socially vulnerable populations.”
The new challenge was filed by Lambda Legal, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Center for Reproductive Rights. Plaintiffs include California’s Santa Clara County, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the D.C.-based Whitman-Walker Health.