Editor’s Note: This week and next, “The Wall of Separation” blog will run a series of special posts examining the policy proposals in AU’s “Agenda to Restore & Protect Religious Freedom.” Developed by Americans United’s Public Policy Department, the agenda lists 10 proposals the incoming administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris can take to undo the damage done to church-state separation during the Trump years.
The administration of President Donald Trump has sought repeatedly to subject Americans’ health care to religious control. It’s crucial that we begin to reverse those policies and get health care decisions back where they belong: between you and your doctor.
During a May 2, 2019, National Day of Prayer ceremony, Trump unveiled a new rule that invites any health care worker – including doctors, nurses, paramedics, administrators and even clerical staff – to deny medical treatment and services to patients because of personal religious or moral beliefs, even in life-or-death situations.
The vaguely worded “Denial of Care” rule was especially dangerous because it set no limits on what constitutes a religious or moral refusal, nor did it establish appropriate safeguards to ensure that patients denied care get the treatment they need. This could discourage medical facilities from setting and enforcing their own nondiscrimination and emergency policies for fear of losing their federal funding, while tacitly urging them instead to let their employees arbitrarily deny care to patients on personal religious or moral grounds.
“It is clear that women, LGBTQ people and religious minorities are the intended targets, but it doesn’t stop there,” AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said at the time. “The rule is so broad that everyone – including sick children, pregnant women and senior citizens – is at risk.”
Americans United and its allies quickly challenged the rule in court in two lawsuits. On Nov. 19, 2019, a federal court in California blocked the rule from going into effect. Observed U.S. District Judge William Alsup, “When a rule is so saturated with error, as here, there is no point in trying to sever the problematic provisions. The whole rule must go.” (Two other courts also struck down the rule, but the Trump administration is appealing those decisions.)
The Denial of Care rule isn’t the only way the Trump administration sought to interfere in Americans’ health care. They have also sought to undermine the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
The ACA requires most employers to offer health insurance plans that cover preventive care at no cost to beneficiaries; this includes coverage of contraceptives, which are a critical component in health care.
From the beginning, the ACA exempted houses of worship from complying with the birth control benefit. And for other religiously affiliated nonprofits with religious objections to contraceptives, the government offered an accommodation: All the nonprofits had to do was certify their objection in writing. The government would then work with a third-party provider to ensure employees had access to reproductive health care without involving the employer.
Through court challenges, this accommodation was later extended to some for-profit, family-owned corporations like the craft store chain Hobby Lobby. Under Trump, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services created a much broader religious exemption for virtually any employer or university that wants it, including for-profit corporations. Worse yet, the rules don’t require employers to tell the government they’re not providing contraceptive coverage. This means the government won’t know who doesn’t have coverage and can’t make arrangements to provide people with access to this critical care.
Your health care decisions are a private matter. The Biden-Harris administration should rescind the Trump policies so that no one is denied access to health care because of someone else’s religious beliefs.
With your support, AU will see to it that these dangerous Trump policies are overturned.