WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice is establishing a Religious Liberty Task Force that it says will “promote and protect religious liberty,” but critics say could end up hurting women’s reproductive rights.
“In recent years, the cultural climate in this country — and in the West more generally — has become less hospitable to people of faith,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech Monday in which he announced the task force’s formation. “Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”
“And it’s easy to see why,” he continued, speaking to his department’s Religious Liberty Summit. “We’ve seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives.”
Sessions was referring to the 2016 Supreme Court case Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell, in which an order of Catholic nuns wanted to provide health insurance for its employees that did not include contraceptive coverage — an exclusion that went against the Affordable Care Act (ACA). That case was combined with several other cases in a decision known as Zubik v. Burwell.
The Supreme Court, without really ruling on the issue at hand — whether the provision of the ACA that required plans to cover contraceptives violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — agreed that the government should be allowed to find a way for employees whose employers object to covering birth control to be provided with such coverage free of charge.
The Obama administration, which was in office at the time, issued a compromise in which workers whose employers declined to offer contraceptive coverage could still get such coverage for free directly from their insurer. That arrangement still left some employers dissatisfied since, in order to activate the coverage, they would have to sign a form stating that they objected to the coverage and wouldn’t be paying for it — an act these employers saw as participating in making the coverage available.
The Trump administration’s new task force will “[make] sure that our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith,” Sessions said. “We are also going to remain in contact with religious groups across America to ensure that their rights are being protected. We have been holding listening sessions and we will continue to host them in the coming weeks.” A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment further on what actions the task force might take regarding healthcare providers, instead referring a reporter back to Sessions’s speech and a department memo issued Monday about the task force, which didn’t address the issue.
Some healthcare groups applauded the move. “AAPLOG [American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists] applauds the recent formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force formed to ensure that free speech and free exercise of religion remain fundamental American freedoms,” Donna Harrison, MD, AAPLOG’s executive director, said in an email.
“The ability to exercise rights of conscience in medicine is especially important in obstetrics and gynecology, where too often physicians and physicians in training are being pressured to violate their conscience to take the life of one of their patients. This task force represents a real step in ensuring that Hippocratic physicians will be enabled to continue to practice medicine that does no harm to their patients.”
But others disagreed. “As medical professionals, our utmost concern is that people can get timely, high-quality healthcare that they need without stigma or obstacles,” said Jenn Conti, MD, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, a pro-choice group, in an email. “Patient care should always come first. I am troubled that the new task force could embolden some providers and institutions to discriminate because of a patient’s individual healthcare decisions.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also expressed concern. “There are real implications to the Trump administration’s ‘religious liberty’ policies,” the organization said Tuesday on Twitter. “Attacking our reproductive freedom is one of them. We’ll fight to make sure everyone has access to healthcare without fear of discrimination.”
The American Medical Association said it was monitoring the development of the task force but didn’t have further comment. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists did not have anyone available to comment.