The Trump administration
on Friday moved to expand the rights of employers to deny women insurance coverage for contraception and issued sweeping guidance on religious freedom that critics said could also erode civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The twin actions, by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department, were meant to carry out a promise issued by President Trump five months ago, when he declared in the Rose Garden that “we will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted those words in issuing guidance to federal agencies and prosecutors, instructing them to take the position in court that workers, employers and organisations may claim broad exemptions from nondiscrimination laws on the basis of religious objections.
At the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services issued two rules rolling back a federal requirement that employers must include birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. The rules offer an exemption to any employer that objects to covering contraception services on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.
More than 55 million women have access to birth control without co-payments because of the contraceptive coverage mandate, according to a study commissioned by the Obama administration.
Under the new regulations, hundreds of thousands of women could lose those benefits.
The contraceptive coverage mandate, issued by the Obama administration
under the Affordable Care Act, removed cost as a barrier to birth control, a longtime goal of advocates for women’s rights. But the mandate ensnarled the federal government in more than five years of litigation, which overshadowed many other aspects of the health care law.
The rules issued on Friday prompted more lawsuits and threats of lawsuits. The attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, and the attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra, filed lawsuits to block the new rules, which took effect immediately.
Both said the rules violated the First Amendment, which bars government action “respecting an establishment of religion.” But some conservatives and religious groups said the new rules would allow them to live out their religious beliefs. Speaker Paul D Ryan of Wisconsin hailed the rules as “a landmark day for religious liberty.” The rules were also welcomed by groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Roman Catholic nuns who had resisted the Obama administration’s mandate because, they said, it would make them “morally complicit in grave sin.”
“The new administration isn’t going to force Catholic nuns to provide contraceptives,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represents the Little Sisters of the Poor. “We’ve been on a long, divisive culture war because the last administration decided nuns needed to give
The new initiatives came a day after Sessions changed the Justice Department’s position on a related issue: whether a ban on workplace discrimination on the basis of “sex” in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 encompasses discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The Obama administration
had adopted the view that it does cover transgender people, but Sessions said the department should take the position in court that it does not.
© 2017 The New York Times News Service