Written by Don Byrd

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced the creation of a new division within its Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The “Conscience and Religious Liberty Division” will investigate religious liberty claims in the health care context — for instance, medical professionals who object to performing certain procedures that conflict with their religious beliefs. According to the HHS press release, the move “will provide HHS with the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom … .”

Emma Green, in writing for The Atlantic about the announcement, emphasizes that the new division is not a change in the law or government policy. “Thursday’s announcement,” she writes, is “a reorientation of the federal bureaucracy—a signal, like so many of the administration’s moves over the last year, of who the government will side with in conflicts over religious rights.”

That signal, however, indicates a “reversal of what was in place…under the Obama Administration,” according to NPR health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak. In a Morning Edition segment, she explained the authority of the HHS Office of Civil Rights and the potential role of this new division.

[I]t’s a division that’s being created within the Office of Civil Rights, which is actually an office that has enforcement authority, so they can actually, you know, fine companies or health care institutions. They can order them to change their behavior. And what it will do is essentially allow health care workers to refuse to participate in procedures, to perhaps not treat people who are transgender if they think that goes against their moral or religious rights or participate in abortions that are needed and allow them to refuse based on their conscience.

It remains to be seen precisely how these additional investigative and enforcement resources will be used in practice. Laws protecting conscience-based objections have been in place for years. But OCR Director Roger Serevino promises “change is coming” in the way government treats conscience claims in the healthcare arena. The BJC is particularly interested in whether this change threatens to adversely affect patient care and how this focus on health care workers affects the government’s duty to ensure nondiscrimination in services. Stay tuned.