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House Dems Take Action Against HHS 'Religious Freedom' Division

Michelle Lujan Grisham
At left: Michelle Lujan Grisham

Lawmakers express concern that the division will enable discrimination, and one seeks to abolish it.

Democrats in the U.S. House are taking steps against the new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom in the Department of Health and Human Services, with a letter seeking clarification on its mission and legislation seeking to abolish it.

Civil rights activists have warned that the division, established in January, will enable and encourage discrimination against LGBT people, women seeking reproductive health care, and others by health care personnel who cite religious objections to certain services or certain patients - even by personnel only marginally involved in the provision of care.

A group of more than 40 House Democrats, led by Rep. Charlie Crist of Florida, sent a letter Monday to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, asking if the "principles of conscience and religious freedom" would allow health care providers that receive public funds to deny certain services, including contraception, lifesaving abortions, in vitro fertilization, HIV testing or treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis, hormone therapy, gender-confirmation surgery, and mental health care, or to turn away LGBT patients.

"We are deeply concerned that the new division could be used to justify discrimination against our constituents, including women, members of the LGBT community, and persons living with HIV," the lawmakers wrote. "Given the administration's extremely troubling application of 'religious freedom' doctrines, from the guidance issued by the Department of Justice allowing federal agencies and contractors to discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs to the removal of the provision in the Affordable Care Act requiring employees to cover contraceptives, our concern is not without cause. While peoples of faith can have honest disagreements, religious beliefs should not be used to further roll back access to health care."

Meanwhile, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico Tuesday introduced legislation to abolish the division, along with a proposed HHS rule. the Washington Blade reports. "The Trump Administration's new division and accompanying proposed rule entitled, 'Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care; Delegations of Authority' have been widely criticized due to concerns that they will enable discrimination throughout the U.S. health care system," noted a press release from Lujan Grisham's office.

"A patient's health and wellness should always come first and the Trump Administration has no business facilitating discrimination and creating barriers for medically necessary health care that will ultimately harm patient health and endanger lives," Lujan Grisham said in the release. "This Division was created with the sole purpose of allowing hospitals, doctors, nurses, and even administrative staff to determine a patient's care based on their personal religious beliefs, not on what is best for the patient. I am proud to introduce this legislation to ensure that every American, regardless of their gender identity, reproductive health care choices, or need for any type of medical care, has access to quality, comprehensive health care."

Her bill has the endorsement of the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Women's Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, Equality New Mexico, the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and the National Center for Transgender Equality.

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