December 2019 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

Three federal courts last month invalidated the Trump administration’s appalling Denial of Care Rule that would have allowed anyone who works in the health care field to refuse to provide services solely on the basis of personal religious beliefs.

A rule like this could put the lives of millions of people in jeopardy. It’s short-sighted and reckless. And, as we now know, there’s no need for it. The Trump administration’s entire justification for the rule was built on a tissue of lies.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asserted that the number of people who said they had been pressured to act against their faith had jumped dramatically over 12 months. They claimed an average of only one complaint per year for some time until last year, when the number of complaints suddenly skyrocketed to 343.

The clear implication here was that, for whatever reason, religious people working in health care fields were suddenly being pressured to act in ways that violated their deeply held beliefs. In light of these numbers, officials at HHS argued they were compelled to act.

But there’s one major problem: The number is a lie. U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer called the figure “flatly untrue” in his Nov. 6 ruling, and The Washington Post noted that officials at HHS apparently arrived at this figure by including complaints about vaccinations, which would not have even been affected by the Denial of Care Rule. In fact, 80 percent of the complaints HHS collected were about vaccinations.

So how many complaints were there about alleged violations of conscience in the health care field? Engelmayer noted that 21 of the complaints provided to the court by HHS have even a tangential relationship to religious or moral objections. During oral arguments in the case, a government lawyer was forced to concede this was true, calling that figure “in that ballpark.”

“This conceded fact is fatal to HHS’s stated justification for the Rule,” Engelmayer wrote in his opinion. “Even assuming that all 20 or 21 complaints implicated the Conscience Provisions, those 20 or 21 are a far cry from the 343 that the Rule declared represented a ‘significant increase’ in complaints.”

Twenty-one complaints is not very many when you consider how many Americans work in the health care field. (Last year, the health care industry surpassed manufacturing to become the nation’s largest employer.) And remember, anyone can file a complaint. The mere fact that a complaint has been filed doesn’t make it valid.

Given this administration’s penchant for ignoring the truth and inventing its own “facts” to suit its needs, it’s not surprising that its justification for the Denial of Care Rule turned out to be based purely on myth. What is surprising is that Trump’s lackeys thought they could slip this whopper by a federal court.

Their lies did them in this time. Let’s hope it won’t be the last.