News Articles

HHS proposal would roll back conscience rights, ERLC says

Baptist Press photo

WASHINGTON (BP) – A proposed regulation regarding conscience protections actually would result in fewer safeguards for the right of Americans to act according to their beliefs, a Southern Baptist entity has told the Biden administration.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) filed public comments Monday (March 6) with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about its proposed revision of a Trump-era rule issued to protect conscience rights. The proposal would reduce the enforcement of such rights and of the federal laws on which they are based, the ERLC told HHS.

“Though this regulation is touted as a move towards ‘balance,’ it does not balance so much as tilt the scales toward the preferred position of the Biden administration — expanding access to abortion and gender-affirming care at the expense of conscience rights,” said Hannah Daniel, the ERLC’s policy manager, in written comments for Baptist Press.

“Southern Baptists have long rejected this sort of action and have decried the repeated attempts of government to trample on the consciences of faithful Christians serving in the medical field,” she said.

“Through stripping away any real enforcement of the conscience rights already codified into law, this rule is severely weakening the protections they offer. As our comments argued, ‘a failure to enforce the law undermines the very rights enshrined in those laws.’”

The ERLC also has objected to other HHS actions under President Biden that it said undermined freedom of religion and conscience. In October, the commission filed public comments protesting a proposed HHS regulation it said would violate the consciences of individuals and entities that object to performing or insuring gender-transition procedures and abortions.

The commission was among the organizations that commended the Trump-era rule for strengthening conscience protections when it was proposed in 2018.

Issued by HHS as a proposal in early January, the new conscience protection rule would partly repeal the 2019 regulation. It also would modify or eliminate specific sections of that rule “because they are redundant or confusing, because they undermine the balance Congress struck between safeguarding conscience rights and protecting access to health care access, or because significant questions have been raised as to their legal authorization,” according to HHS.

The newly proposed regulation and other actions by the Biden administration and HHS that have failed to protect the consciences of religious medical professions “are gravely concerning to Southern Baptists,” ERLC President Brent Leatherwood said in public comments to the department.

The commission is concerned about the proposal because “it will lead to fewer pathways for and lessened enforcement of protections of one of Americans’ most fundamental rights – to always act consistent with and never act against one’s conscience, especially as it pertains to deeply held religious or moral commitments,” Leatherwood wrote.

Included in his concerns regarding weakened enforcement is the removal of the definitions of such terms as “assist in the performance” and “discriminate or discrimination,” Leatherwood wrote. The terms are crucial for “entities understanding the applicability of the law and for individuals in proving violation of rights,” he said.

HHS’ “failure to enforce the law undermines the very rights enshrined in those laws,” Leatherwood wrote. Citing multiple federal laws that safeguard conscience rights, he said those laws “are rendered meaningless unless they are adequately protected and enforced by” HHS.

“For Southern Baptists, conscience protections are fundamental to our ability to freely exercise our religion and live out the most basic tenets of our faith,” Leatherwood also told HHS.

He quoted from the Bible and The Baptist Faith and Message, the SBC’s statement of faith, before saying, “Broad conscience protections allow Christians to remain faithful to these core beliefs while also continuing their important work, serving their communities through providing medical care.”

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a Southern Baptist, led 18 Republican senators in filing comments to HHS Monday in which they said the proposed regulation fails to enforce adequately conscience protections approved by Congress.

The new HHS proposal maintains a 2011 rule implemented under President Obama while eliminating or modifying parts of the 2019 rule. The 2011 rule covered only three conscience protection laws, while the 2019 rule implemented 25 such provisions, according to an HHS factsheet during the Trump administration. Three federal courts blocked the 2019 rule from taking effect.

The violations of conscience in recent years included reports by nurses in at least Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Vermont that they were forced to participate in abortions at the risk of losing their jobs.