Proposed Federal Health Regs Could Jeopardize Patient Care, Says AU

Proposed federal regulations that purport to protect the religious liberty of doctors and other medical workers could jeopardize the health care rights of patients, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United on Sept. 24 submitted public comments to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) criticizing the proposed “Provider Conscience Regulation.” AU said the regulation is unconstitutional, is a violation of statutory law and is bad government policy.

The HHS regulation, which was published in the Federal Register on August 26, 2008, provides an absolute and unqualified right of workers to refuse to perform any service or activity if it is contrary to their religious convictions. AU says this goes too far.

For example, under the regulation, an HHS-funded employee could refuse on religious grounds to provide or fill psychiatric, HIV, birth control, methadone and sleeping-aid prescriptions or refuse to honor a patient’s end-of-life decree that rejects life-prolonging treatment. Such employees could also refuse to provide fertility treatments for lesbian patients.

“This regulation puts patient health and health service programs at risk,” said AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “Current law already accommodates and respects religious objections, so long as the objection does not harm patients.

“It is clear that this regulation is just another strategy to push a very narrow religious viewpoint on the entire country,” Lynn continued. “The regulation never should have been released for public comment and ought to be discarded in a circular repository for bad constitutional law and bad medical science.”

AU’s Lynn said the regulation conflicts with church-state separation. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional any laws or regulations that elevate “the accommodation of religious observance over…safety, including a patient’s health or even life,” Americans United cites in its official comment.

The proposed regulation also ignores Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which respects the rights of religious employees, but also takes into consideration the burdens that the accommodation would place on third parties, customers and patients. The proposed regulation requires accommodation of religious views regardless of any burden placed on patients, co-workers or the health care facility.

AU said the regulations are yet another example of the Bush administration’s decision to kowtow to the Religious Right and bend public policy to meet the demands of these organizations.