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Trump Extends Religious-Refusal Protections to Health Providers

A federal office has been created to protect doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers who refuse to provide medical services based on their religious beliefs. Photo: westend61/GettyImages

by Mark Richardson

HOUSTON – A Trump administration plan to protect healthcare workers who refuse to provide services on religious grounds is raising the concerns of civil rights advocates.

A presidential order has authorized the creation of a “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” of the Department of Health and Human Services. Its goal is to defend providers who refuse to perform abortions, fill prescriptions or perform other medical services based on religious or moral beliefs.

Dan Quinn, communications director with the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network says the move opens the door to legalized discrimination, in Texas and elsewhere.

“In effect, what this does is open the door to any provider saying that, ‘Because of religious objections, I’m not going to provide the care you need, and you’re going to have to go somewhere else – if there is anywhere else.’ That opens up the door to a lot of frightening possibilities,” says Quinn.

HHS says its new division “will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice.”

A Texas law passed last year allows faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to refuse services based on religious beliefs. And a Texas Senate committee has an interim hearing in February to consider other so-called religious freedom bills.

Quinn says such laws, state or federal, turn faith into a weapon to discriminate. He sees protecting doctors, nurses and other health workers in such cases as a cynical ploy to get around long established civil rights laws.

“This is a solution in search of a problem here,” he says. “People who provide healthcare services are not facing persecution because of their religious beliefs. All the Trump administration is doing here is creating a new way around anti-discrimination protections.”

The American Civil Liberties Union says it plans to closely monitor the new office’s activities. Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling says in the Trump administration, the definition of religious liberty often depends on who you ask.

“That’s why we’re so concerned,” says Melling. “At the ACLU, we staunchly defend religious freedom, religious liberty. But religious freedom, religious liberty doesn’t give you a right to harm others. That’s an incredibly important predicate.”

Melling says she is concerned that the Trump administration has already shown that it defines “religious liberty” as a right to discriminate.

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