Two federal judges scrap ‘Denial of Care Rule’

Illustration by Ash Cheshire

Across a two-day period last week, two federal trial court judges struck down a proposed Trump administration rule that would allow health care workers — ranging from doctors, nurses and EMTs to janitors and clerical staff — to deny medical services on the grounds of personal religious or moral beliefs. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed the legislation, dubbed the “Denial of Care Rule” by opponents, in May. Judge Paul A. Engelmayer of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York kicked off the wave of judicial vacancies Nov. 6 by issuing an order and opinion upending the proposed legislation in State of New York v. HHS. The following day, Judge Stanley A. Bastian of the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington vacated the rule in State of Washington v. Azar, a case that takes on Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

“Two judges in two days have recognized the Denial of Care Rule for what it is, an egregious and unconstitutional attack on women, LGBT people and other vulnerable populations,” said Jamie Gliksberg, Lambda Legal senior attorney. “In his ruling, delivered from the bench, Judge Bastian joins Judge Paul A. Engelmayer of the Southern District of New York in vacating this discriminatory and harmful rule, and in likely saving countless lives. The Denial of Care Rule targets some of our most marginalized and vulnerable communities and deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history.”

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California also heard arguments Oct. 30 in County of Santa Clara v. HHS, a case that similarly challenges the “Denial of Care Rule” in which the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Mazzoni Center are plaintiffs. Lambda Legal, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed the lawsuit May 28, days after the federal government set forth the rule.

The lawsuit takes the stance that the rule would unfairly harm the LGBTQ community. 

“The Rule specifically invites refusals to provide care to women seeking reproductive healthcare and transgender and gender-nonconforming patients seeking gender-affirming care, adversely affecting the healthcare entities that provide reproductive healthcare services and that serve the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) community,” the suit states. “The Rule stigmatizes and shames these patients, depriving them of their constitutionally protected rights of access to healthcare and their dignity and autonomy in seeking medically necessary healthcare central to their self-determination.” 

The New York and Washington judges scrapped the federal rule a couple weeks ahead of its Nov. 22 implementation. Before the challenging litigation, it was intended to go into effect July 22. 

In State of New York v. HHS, in which Pennsylvania is a plaintiff alongside Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and 15 other states, Engelmayer wrote in his opinion that the rule would violate federal law in “numerous, fundamental and far-reaching” ways. 

The court sided with plaintiffs in that HHS “acted arbitrarily and capriciously” in promoting the legislation, adding the department “did not observe proper rulemaking procedure.”

A written opinion is forthcoming in State of Washington v. Azar. 

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