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Federal Judge's Ruling Calls Out Affordable Care Act for Violating Health Care Workers' Conscience Rights

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A federal judge has issued a permanent injunction on behalf of religious health care providers who feared the Biden administration would interpret the Affordable Care Act as requiring them to perform abortions or transgender therapies against their conscience.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services claimed that it does not require religious providers to offer such procedures and has never brought or threatened any enforcement activity against a religious entity in such a case.

But U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor interpreted HHS regulations as forcing the plaintiffs — a Catholic hospital system in the Midwest and a Christian medical association — to choose between their beliefs and their livelihood, resulting in “irreparable injury.”

The decision underscores a continued dispute between conservative religious health care providers and HHS over an issue that has generated a patchwork of rulings that will likely have to be sorted out by appellate courts.

The injunction benefits the plaintiffs — Franciscan Alliance, a Catholic hospital network in Indiana and Illinois, and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations and their 19,000 members nationwide.

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O’Connor, whose court is in the Northern District of Texas, issued the injunction based on his earlier ruling that found HHS in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires deference to religion barring a “compelling government interest.”

Another federal judge issued a similar decision in favor of a Catholic health system in North Dakota in January.

The Biden administration is appealing it.

The plaintiffs in the Texas court sued in 2016 over Affordable Care Act-related rules issued by HHS that year under the Obama administration.

Is it wrong to force medical professionals to violate their consciences?

The rules apply to most medical providers by virtue of their participation in federally funded programs.

Supposedly, the rules were intended to prevent discrimination based on factors including sex, interpreted as including gender identity, and pregnancy status, such as “termination of pregnancy.”

The Trump administration strengthened religious exemptions in 2020 — although other federal courts temporarily blocked that change.

It was also soon followed by a Supreme Court ruling that interpreted the federal ban on sex discrimination as also prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity.

This May, HHS said it would interpret its rules according to that Supreme Court ruling but would also abide by previous court rulings such as that of O’Connor.

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The judge, in ordering the permanent injunction this week, said that was a contradiction.

Attorney Luke Goodrich, who represented the plaintiffs on behalf of Becket, a legal organization focused on religious liberty, applauded the decision.

“Everyone is better off when these doctors and hospitals can continue to provide top-notch medical care” without violating their consciences, he said.

The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.

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