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Spokane judge becomes second to block Trump administration’s ‘conscience rule’

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 7, 2019

A Spokane felon, Seth Randles, 36, pleaded guilty Thursday to charges related to human trafficking for sex charges. He appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Bastian at the Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse, shown here in May. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A Spokane felon, Seth Randles, 36, pleaded guilty Thursday to charges related to human trafficking for sex charges. He appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Bastian at the Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse, shown here in May. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A federal judge in Spokane became the second in two days to block the Trump administration’s new expanded “conscience rule” that would allow health care workers to refuse care for religious or moral reasons.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian granted state attorneys a summary judgment in a lawsuit that argued the rule would hurt access to reproductive health care, end-of-life care decisions and care for transgender patients.

The state had sued the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which announced the rule in May; it was scheduled to begin later this month.

A wide array of people that provides medical services to a patient would be allowed to refuse services, even in a medical emergency, for religious or moral reasons. Federal health care funding could be cut off if federal officials believed the state violated the rule.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in New York ruled in a similar case challenging the rule brought by 19 states, the District of Columbia and several large cities.

U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer said while some conscience provisions exist in federal law, the department did not have the authority to change them, nor did it have the authority to threaten to terminate federal HHS funds to a state that did not follow the new rules. The department didn’t follow the Administrative Procedures Act when making the changes.

The new rules also violate federal laws that protect employee rights and require treatment of medical emergencies, and infringe on Congress’s power to decide how federal money is spent, Englemayer wrote in his decision. The department’s stated reason that the conscience rule needed to be changed was because of a significant increase in civilian complaints that was “factually untrue,” he added.

The problems with the new rules are “numerous, fundamental and far-reaching,” the judge wrote. It wouldn’t be possible to strip out the invalid sections and leave the rest on the books, he said.

The department could develop new rules but “must do so within the confines of the Administrative Procedures Act and the Constitution,” he added.

After discussing Engelmayer’s ruling, Bastian heard arguments from state and federal attorneys, then granted Washington’s request to block the new rules.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he filed the state’s own case in the federal court in Spokane because rural communities, including those in Eastern Washington, have fewer health care providers and would be more likely to be harmed by the rule.

Engelmayer extended his decision to the entire country, not just the states and cities that filed suit in New York. But Ferguson said in a news release that Bastian’s ruling “provides an extra layer of protection against appeal by the Trump administration.”

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