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Atheists Still Have Concerns About Denial of Care Rule

Washington, D.C. – On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights announced the release of its new Denial of Care rule, Safeguarding the Rights of Conscience as Protected by Federal Statutes

President of American Atheists, Nick Fish, said, “The Department of Health and Human Services has taken a step in the right direction this week. The religious refusal rule the Biden Administration inherited had nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with enshrining religious extremism into law and prioritizing the narrow beliefs of a few over the wellbeing of millions.”

The just-announced Final Rule rescinds significant portions of a 2019 rule that would have allowed health care providers and other entities involved in patient care – including insurance companies, receptionists, and administrators – to discriminate against patients and deny necessary treatment on the basis of religious disapproval had it not been found unlawful by three federal district courts. 

American Atheists strongly opposed the Trump-era religious refusal rule, denouncing it as a blatant attempt to enshrine religious extremism into law at the expense of the health and safety of millions of Americans. If not for the litigation that ensued, the rule would have threatened access to abortion, contraceptives, HIV prevention and treatment, gender-affirming care, end-of-life care, and more – even in cases of emergency. 

In early 2023, American Atheists wrote in support of the Biden Administration’s proposal to abrogate the Trump Administration’s rule. In comments submitted to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, the religious equality organization offered a number of suggestions for various amendments that would strengthen the final rule, including more robust data collection on the impact of health care discrimination on religious minorities, atheists, and other nonreligious patients. 

“We are grateful Secretary Becerra has reinforced some of the nondiscrimination protections issued by the Obama Administration in 2011,” said Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists. “However, we remain concerned that the Final Rule retains several misguided provisions from 2019 and grants broad enforcement authority to the Office for Civil Rights that could be misused by future administrations.” 

The anti-abortion group CatholicVote issued a response confirming American Atheists’ concerns. The religious lobbying organization concluded the Final Rule upholds exemptions and accommodations for religious beliefs, with their Director of Government Affairs noting, “…it could have been much worse. The onslaught of public protest prevented HHS from sending us back to 2011.”

“Unfortunately, these revisions from HHS do little to make patients aware they can be denied medical care for nonmedical reasons,” explained Gill. “It reinforces the need for states to pass health care transparency legislation – like HB 1218 in Colorado – to ensure patients are informed when they are denied necessary care because of the beliefs of hospitals and providers.”

The Final Rule will take effect on March 1, 2024.