Wednesday, November 6, 2019
Judge Paul A. Engelmayer (S.D.N.Y.) struck the Trump Administration rule designed to allow healthcare workers to decline services if they have a religious objection to a procedure.
The ruling deals a significant blow to the Administration's efforts to expand "conscience protections" for healthcare workers beyond what federal statutes currently provide.
The court held that the Health and Human Services rule exceed statutory authority, violate the law, and violated the separation of powers and the Spending Clause. The court held that it did not violate the Establishment Clause.
The rule provides, among other things, that a healthcare worker can decline to participate in a procedure when the worker has a religious or moral objection, that the worker's employer can't discriminate against the worker based on the worker's beliefs, and that HHS can revoke all HHS funding to any employer who violates these provisions. HHS purportedly adopted the rule under authority of 30 statutory provisions that recognize the right of an individual or entity to abstain from participation in medical procedures.
The court ruled that the sweeping rule went well beyond HHS's statutory authority, and that the agency therefore exceeded its statutory authority in enacting the rule. It also held that the rule violates Title VII and the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. And it held that HHS's reasons for enacting the rule were not sufficient (among other things, "HHS's central factual claim of a 'significant increase' of complaints of Conscience Provision violations is flatly untrue."); that HHS's explanation for changing course was insufficient; and that HHS failed to consider the rule's application to medical emergencies and its interplay (and conflict with) Title VII. Finally, the court held that the rule's sweeping definition of "discrimination" "was not a logical outgrowth of the Rule as proposed."
The court also ruled that HHS violated the separation of powers by adopting a rule that allowed the agency to withhold all federal funding, exceeding the agency's authority under federal law. It held that the rule violated the Spending Clause as against state plaintiffs, because the conditions on receipt of federal funds are ambiguous and impermissibly coercive.
However, the court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the rule violated the Establishment Clause, "because the Rule, on its face, equally recognizes secular ("moral") and religious objections to the covered medical procedures."
The court vacated the entire rule (and declined to sever offending portions, given that the APA violates "are numerous, fundamental, and far-reaching") and held it invalid as to any plaintiff.