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Judge’s ruling on health-care conscience rights praised

WICHITA FALLS, Texas (BP) — Religious freedom and pro-life advocates commended a new federal court decision that protects freedom of conscience for health-care professionals.

In an Oct. 15 ruling, federal judge Reed O’Connor annulled a 2016 Obama-era rule that required doctors to perform gender transition procedures or treatments, as well as abortions. The opinion affirmed an earlier decision by O’Connor, who granted a nationwide, preliminary injunction against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulation on Jan. 31, 2016, a day before it was to take effect.

“This ruling frees doctors from having to fear a choice between obedience to the law and obedience to conscience,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written comments to Baptist Press. “It is in the best interest of all Americans to have a government that respects, not smothers, the conscience rights of others. I’m glad to see this court agree.”

Luke Goodrich — vice president of the religious freedom organization Becket — called the ruling “a major victory for compassion, conscience, and sound medical judgment.”

“Doctors cannot do their jobs if government bureaucrats are trying to force them to perform potentially harmful procedures that violate their medical and moral judgment,” he said in a written statement.

Becket is representing the Christian Medical Association (CMA) — the country’s largest faith-based, professional medical organization — and the Franciscan Network — a Roman Catholic hospital system — in their legal challenge to the HHS rule. Nine states also filed suit.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, called the opinion “an important victory.” She said in a written statement, “Abortion is not health care and should never be mandated by the government.”

HHS, under the Trump administration, proposed in May of this year a new regulation to rescind the Obama administration’s 2016 rule. The new regulation has yet to take effect, however.

In his opinion, O’Connor — a judge in the Northern District of Texas — said he was adopting the reasoning from his 2016 decision, including that the HHS regulation violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That 1993 federal law requires the government to have a compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means in burdening a person’s religious exercise.

In granting an injunction nearly three years ago, O’Connor ruled the challengers to the HHS transgender/abortion mandate had demonstrated they likely would succeed because the rule redefined “sex discrimination” and failed to protect religious freedom.

The Obama administration defined “sex” in the HHS rule to include gender identity and abortion. The redefinition described gender identity as “an individual’s internal sense of gender, which may be male, female, neither, or a combination of male and female, and which may be different from an individual’s sex assigned at birth.”

Title IX — a federal law that bars sex discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities — “unambiguously prevented discrimination on the basis of the biological differences between males and females,” O’Connor wrote in 2016, thereby ruling it did not include gender identity.

He also said the HHS regulation’s “failure to include Title IX’s religious exemptions renders the [mandate] contrary to law.”

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Oct. 8 on whether long-standing, non-discrimination protections in federal workplace law cover “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.”

The 2016 HHS rule applies to all private doctors, healthcare providers and health insurance plans that accept federal funding, but the department exempted the federal government’s Medicare and Medicaid programs from the regulation’s requirement. Its panel of experts said the literature “is ‘inconclusive’ on whether gender reassignment surgery improves health outcomes for Medicare beneficiaries with gender dysphoria.” Gender dysphoria refers to the discomfort a person may feel with his or her biological sex.

Messengers to the 2014 Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution regarding transgender identity that “affirm[ed] God’s good design that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.” The resolution “regard[ed] our transgender neighbors as image-bearers of Almighty God and therefore condemn[ed] acts of abuse or bullying committed against them.”

The resolution also said, “We invite all transgender persons to trust in Christ and to experience renewal in the Gospel.”

A 2016 resolution on sexuality reaffirmed Southern Baptists’ love for those who identify as transgender.

SBC messengers have repeatedly throughout the last four decades passed resolutions affirming the sanctity of human life in the womb and opposing abortion.