February 27, 2018 at 5:30 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
House Dems step up efforts against new anti-LGBT division within HHS

House Dems lied by Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Charlie Crist are stepping up efforts against an anti-LGBT division within HHS. (Photos public domain)

Amid the widespread view a new conscience division at the Department of Health & Human Services would enable medical practitioners to refuse treatment to women seeking abortions and LGBT people, House Democrats are stepping up efforts against the office.

The initiatives from House Democrats this week consist of a joint letter led by Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) seeking clarification on the purpose of the Conscience & Religious Freedom Division and legislation from Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) seeking to abolish it.

In the letter dated Feb. 26, House Democrats seek clarity on whether the Trump-era division — widely seen as a tool for anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of “religious freedom” — would enable discrimination against women, LGBT people and people with HIV in medical services.

“Given the administration’s extremely troubling application of ‘religious freedom’ doctrines, from the guidance issued by the Department of Justice allowing federal agencies and contractors to discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs to the removal of the provision in the Affordable Care Act requiring employees to cover contraceptives, our concern is not without cause,” the letter says. “While peoples of faith can have honest disagreements, religious beliefs should not be used to further roll back access to health care.”

The letter seeks clarification from HHS on whether the Conscience & Religious Freedom Division would allow a medical provider to refuse services in 13 possible situations, including birth control, in vitro fertilizations, medical care to LGBT people, medical care to people with HIV/AIDS, gender reassignment surgery and PrEP, or Pre-exposure prophylaxis, for HIV.

Among the more than 40 lawmakers who signed of the letter are Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).

Meanwhile, the new legislation introduced by Lujan Grisham would abolish the Conscience & Religious Freedom Division and the accompanying Trump administration rule that enabled its creation.

Lujan Grisham said in a statement the Trump administration “has no business facilitating discrimination and creating barriers” for individuals to receive medically necessary care.

“This division was created with the sole purpose of allowing hospitals, doctors, nurses, and even administrative staff to determine a patient’s care based on their personal religious beliefs, not on what is best for the patient,” Lujan Grisham said. “I am proud to introduce this legislation to ensure that every American, regardless of their gender identity, reproductive health care choices or need for any type of medical care, has access to quality, comprehensive health care.”

Among the groups who’ve endorsed the bill are the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Women’s Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, Equality New Mexico, the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico and the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Adrian Carver, executive director for Equality New Mexico, said in a statement use of religion to justify discrimination is “not a new concept, but to extend it to the health care system puts lives at risk.”

“This bill is an effort to put the needs of patients first, regardless of their religion, race, ethnicity, color, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status, or age,” Carver said. “Everyone should have the dignity to access the health care and social services that they need to lead healthy, productive lives.”

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with HHS seeking comment on the letter signed by more than 40 lawmakers.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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