The Trump administration announced Thursday that it would create a new division to protect the religious rights of health care providers, including those who oppose abortions.
The protections might expand to allow health workers to refuse service to gay, lesbian and transgender people, Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NPR.
“This administration has taken a very expansive view of religious liberty,” she said. “It understands religious liberty to override antidiscrimination principles.”
The new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom in the Department of Health and Human Services drew scorn from abortion rights and LGBTQ rights supporters.
“Certainly we support reasonable accommodation of religious freedom in the workplace,” Karen Aroesty, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in St. Louis, told The Star. “But when it is a sword and will harm others, then it’s just an opening that the government is providing to health care workers to discriminate.”
The new division will be part of the Office for Civil Rights, which enforces federal antidiscrimination and privacy laws. The administration said it will focus on enforcing conscience and religious protections that already are part of federal law. No new efforts to expand such protections were announced.
“President Trump promised the American people that his administration would vigorously uphold the rights of conscience and religious freedom,” acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan said in a statement. “That promise is being kept today.”
The HHS civil rights office gets a small number of complaints involving religious and conscience rights, but the number has grown since President Donald Trump was elected.
Roger Severino, director of the HHS civil rights office, said that from 2008 to November 2016, HHS received 10 such complaints. Since Trump won, the office has received 34 complaints.
During the conference, Severino compared health workers who feel compelled to perform medical duties that violate their religious beliefs to Jewish people in the Holocaust and black people during the civil rights movement.
Severino said Jews were forced to walk in shoes with inscriptions written on them by the Nazis, saying, “so that every step they took, they would be violating their conscience. ... I could see the common humanity of why someone is forced to violate their conscience with every step they take, how it’s an attack, really, on their human dignity.”
He then referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as an example of the civil rights leader’s exercise of conscience.
“And now we’ve come to today, where we see that health care, especially with the Office of Civil Rights at HHS, is the next area where the issues of conscience and the issues of life and death are coming to the fore,” Severino said, according to Mother Jones.
Although the HHS civil rights office has traditionally received few complaints alleging conscience violations, HHS Acting Secretary Eric Hargan, painted a picture of clinicians under government coercion to violate the dictates of conscience.
“For too long, too many health care practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against,” Hargan said. “The federal government and state governments have hounded religious hospitals and the men and women who staff them, forcing them to provide or refer for services that violate their consciences, when they only wish to serve according to their religious beliefs,” Hargan added.
U.S. Rep. Vickie Hartzler, a Republican from Missouri, supports the new proposal and spoke during the conference at HHS headquarters.
Earlier in the day, Hartzler tweeted about unborn babies, including a picture of an ultrasound superimposed with the words “#LoveSavesLives.”
Her office did not return a request for comment on Thursday.
Steph Perkins, executive director for PROMO, a Missouri LGBT equal rights organization, said that the proposal could ultimately harm LGBT patients, who already face discrimination from health care providers.
A recent survey found that among trans people, 29 percent were refused treatment because of their gender identity.
“I do recognize that for some people, the initial thought is that doctors should be able to have the freedom to choose who they treat and who they don’t,” Perkins said. “There are existing refusal laws that already allow health care providers to consider religious (beliefs), but this would expand those laws in new and harmful ways.”
Perkins encouraged Missourians to report discrimination by health care providers to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
Similar protections as those announced Thursday gained traction in the Missouri Legislature in 2014 with a bill serving to protect health providers who opt out of procedures such as abortion and stem cell research on moral, ethical or religious grounds. That bill passed the House and Senate but was never signed into law, according to a record of the bill on the House’s website.
Reaction online to Thursday’s announcement was swift and, in some corners, disapproving. The Human Rights Campaign called the new division “dangerous” and wrote that 33 percent of trans people reported experiencing mistreatment because of their gender identity.
But others supported the new protections for religious health workers.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.