Evangelical leaders are applauding the creation of a new division under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to protect the conscience rights of medical professionals who may have objections to certain procedures such as abortions or gender reassignment surgery.
The Trump administration stated on Thursday that the new division called the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division will "more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom, the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights."
The website for the new HHS branch specifically mentioned abortion and assisted suicide as procedures for which medical professionals may need conscience protection. Some media reports suggested that some doctors and nurses may also request protection against being forced to perform or assist with gender transitions.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), hailed the announcement as a "welcome and positive move."
"Health care professionals do not put their consciences in a blind trust when they pursue medical training," he said, as reported by Baptist Press.
"I am thankful that HHS recognizes how imperiled conscience rights have been in recent years in this arena and is actively working and leading to turn the tide in the other direction. Health care professionals should be freed up to care for the bodies and minds of their patients, not tied up by having their own consciences bound," he added.
Rev. Sammy Rodriguez described the move as "powerful," adding that he believes that President Donald Trump is creating a "firewall" aimed at protecting people of faith.
Some liberal organizations have expressed opposition to the new HHS division, claiming that it will be used to advance discrimination.
The Human Rights Campaign's Sarah Warbelow claimed that the new division seeks to "devalue the humanity of LGBTQ people," while Planned Parenthood vice president Dana Singiser said that it will "allow individuals and institutions to deny basic care for women and transgender people."
Steve Goss, president of Mercy Clinic Northwest Arkansas Communities, said that patients do not have to worry that the increased conscience protections will limit access to medical care.
He assured the patients that all the physicians he knows provide care to anyone, even if they are engaged in lifestyles deemed by the doctor as harmful or immoral, such as smoking and alcohol abuse.
Goss, who also serves on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, noted that he never felt the need for heightened conscience protection in his own medical practice, but he expressed appreciation for the creation of the new HHS branch because it "could be important for physicians" who refuse to perform procedures such as abortion and gender transition for conscience reasons because they regard it as "elective and perhaps even destructive."
Since taking office, Trump had introduced measures that would expand religious exemptions to HHS policies, such as the Obama era contraception mandate.
In October, the administration approved two new rules that allowed for-profit and non-profit entities to obtain exemptions from the Affordable Care Act law that required employers to provide birth control coverage.