Cross on American flag Health andHuman Services created the new Division of Conscience and ReligiousFreedom last year with the primary goal of defending religiousfreedom.(Photo: Shutterstock)

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A new rule from the Health and Human Services Office for CivilRights not only provides more backing to health care workerschoosing to refuse to participate in services that don't line upwith their religious beliefs, it also sharpens the thrustof that office's mission.

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The new Trump administration rule, according to NPR, “gives health care workersleeway to refuse to provide services like abortion, sterilizationor assisted suicide, if they cite a religious or conscientiousobjection” and “is designed to protect the religious rights ofhealth care providers and religious institutions.”

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Related: Is religious liberty PPACA's latestvictim?

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In a statement, OCR director Roger Severino said, “This ruleensures that health care entities and professionals won't bebullied out of the health care field because they decline toparticipate in actions that violate their conscience, including thetaking of human life.” When Severino created the new Division ofConscience and Religious Freedom last year, he “made it clear thatdefending religious freedom was his primary goal,” the reportsays.

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HHS has also changed the mission statement of the OCR in thepast week to reflect that focus.

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As pointed out by NPR, the original mission to provide equalaccess to health care and “improve the health and well-being ofpeople across the nation” has been amended to one withmore of  a law enforcement and civil rights focus that“protects exercise of religious beliefs and moral convictions byindividuals and institutions.”

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Existing protections that allow a health care provider to optout of certain services have been expanded under the new rule, evenif they only participate in a tangential way in thoseservices—meaning, Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of theNational Women's Law Center, said in a statement, that “This ruleallows anyone from a doctor to a receptionist to entities likehospitals and pharmacies to deny a patient critical—and sometimeslifesaving—care.”

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The New York Post reports that San Francisco hasalready brought suit against the Trump administration over therule, with City Attorney Dennis Herrera filing the lawsuit in U.S.District Court for Northern California hours after it was issued.Herrera argues that HHS exceeded its statutory authority when itcreated the rule, and that it prioritizes religious beliefs overpatient care.

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And The Hill reports that the state of California may alsobring suit, with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra saying,“It's 2019, not 1920. We won't go back to the days when Americansseeking healthcare faced discrimination simply because they werefemale or LGBTQ. California stands ready to take any and all legalaction to prove the Trump administration wrong.” Patient advocacygroups also criticized the ruling, terming it legalizeddiscrimination that would make it hard for patients to accessneeded care.

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Religious groups applauded the move from the OCR.

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Marlene Satter

Marlene Y. Satter has worked in and written about the financial industry for decades.