The Trump administration created a new office to help doctors and other providers to not perform services that violate their religious or moral beliefs such as abortions or transgender surgery.
Health and Human Services created a new division on religious liberty in its Office of Civil Rights. The division was created as part of a direction under President Trump’s executive order last May that called for the federal government to do more to uphold religious liberty.
“Too many of these healthcare practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or moral convictions,” said acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan at an event at HHS in Washington on Thursday.
Hargan said that there are already strong laws that ensure healthcare providers do not have to provide services that would violate religious or moral beliefs.
Now those laws will be “vigorously enforced by [Office of Civil Rights],” he said.
The Office of Civil Rights is HHS' law enforcement agency, which enforces federal laws over civil rights and conscience.
HHS said on its new website on the division that healthcare workers can file a complaint if they are forced to performing or objected to a medical procedure, which includes abortion or sterilization, or any related training or research.
"The creation of the new division will provide HHS with the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom, the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights," HHS said.
The policy is expected to ensure that doctors or other healthcare providers opt out of providing abortions or transgender surgeries.
"For too long, governments big and small have treated conscience claims with hostility instead of protection, but change is coming and it begins here and now," said Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., hoped the division would target a 2015 California law that requires crisis pregnancy centers to notify women of access to low-cost abortions. The pregnancy centers are often run by religious organizations and are aimed at convincing women to not get an abortion.
Abortion rights advocates charge that the pregnancy centers, which are around the country, are confusing to pregnant women and that such requirements are needed.
McCarthy said that under the Obama administration, HHS had a “silent refusal to defend our rights.”
Several speakers at the event highlighted the case of Little Sisters of the Poor, which sued the Obama administration over Obamacare’s birth control mandate. The nonprofit charity argued that the mandate for employers and insurers to provide birth control to female employees violated their religious beliefs.
The Obama administration gave religious organizations such as churches an exemption to the mandate. It also reached a compromise for privately held companies and religious nonprofits such as charities or universities. Employees of the organizations could receive birth control but the government would pick up the tab.
The Trump administration scaled back the birth control mandate last year to allow any employer that had a religious or moral objection to get an exemption.
Anti-abortion groups applauded the move by HHS to create a new division. Susan B. Anthony List cited the example of a nurse named Cathy DeCarlo who was threatened with the loss of her job for refusing to carry out a late-term abortion.
“We also urge the administration to release new regulations further clarifying the laws this division will enforce,” said SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser.
But the gay civil rights group Human Rights Campaign blasted the decision, charging that the new division will allow healthcare workers to discriminate against patients based on their gender identity or other factors. The campaign argued that the division would tie the hands of healthcare providers from taking any action against anti-gay employees from opting out of critical healthcare procedures.
“Every American deserves access to medically necessary healthcare, and that healthcare should not be determined by the personal opinions of individual healthcare providers or administrative staff,” said HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow.