Jun 06, 2019

Americans United for Separation of Church and State joined the Baltimore City Law Department and law firm Susman Godfrey LLP to file a federal lawsuit late yesterday on behalf of the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore challenging the Trump administration’s “Denial of Care” Rule that was issued in May by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The rule invites all health care workers to deny care to patients based on personal religious or moral beliefs, even in life-or-death circumstances.

The lawsuit, Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. Azar, argues that the rule is unconstitutional because it advances specific religious beliefs to impose harm on patients, providers and the public health generally in violation of the First Amendment. The lawsuit also asserts that in creating the rule HHS violated several federal laws, including the Affordable Care Act by impeding patients’ access to timely care and restricting health care providers’ ability to provide appropriate care, and the Administrative Procedure Act by arbitrarily and capriciously failing to consider the rule’s impact on patients and providers.

“The Denial of Care Rule risks patients’ lives, threatens our public health safety net and corrupts the true meaning of religious freedom,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “The rule in particular hampers Baltimore’s ability to protect the health of its 600,000 residents and address the city’s unique health challenges. We will not stand by while the Trump administration weaponizes our fundamental American value of religious freedom to deny patients lifesaving medical care and put everyone’s health at risk.”

The Denial of Care Rule is confusing and completely infeasible to implement for health care providers and public health departments like Baltimore’s. Yet health departments and health care providers that do not comply risk losing federal funding. As a result, providers may be forced to do away with some services altogether, particularly those geared toward reproductive health and the LGBTQ community – leaving millions without access to critical health care.

The rule has grave consequences for Baltimore in particular, whose population includes many historically marginalized groups and which has elevated health risks, including a higher than average mortality rate, drug overdose mortality rate and HIV diagnosis rate. The Baltimore City Health Department – the oldest continuously operating public health department in the U.S. – has strived to eradicate discrimination in health care to ensure that vulnerable populations will seek medical care without fear of stigmatization. This rule would require Baltimore to endorse the very discrimination it has been combatting – risking not only the health of vulnerable groups, but also the public health city-wide.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Maryland. The complaint is available here.

This is the second federal lawsuit Americans United has filed to block the Denial of Care Rule from going into effect. Joined by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Lambda Legal, AU filed County of Santa Clara v. HHS in coordination with Santa Clara County, Calif., on May 28 in the U.S. District Court in Northern California. Information on that lawsuit is available here.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.