New York State Attorney General Letitia James in April. New York State Attorney General Letitia James in April. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

Less than three weeks after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services enacted a rule allowing companies and individuals to deny health care coverage based on religious and ethics beliefs, New York Attorney General Letitia James took the lead in a lawsuit by 23 cities and states to have the courts render the “Final Conscience Rule” null and void.

New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among the plaintiffs.

The rule allows providers and individuals to avoid paying for some services, such as abortion and sterilization, if they object on religious or moral grounds. But now, James is leading an effort to strike it down through an 80-page lawsuit filed Tuesday in New York against the health department and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex M. Azar II.

In announcing the rule on its website, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the measure fulfills President Donald Trump’s “promise to promote and protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious liberty.”

“The rule ensures that, among other things, healthcare professionals will not feel compelled to leave the practice of medicine because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience such as abortion, sterilization, or assisted suicide,” the department said. “It also protects the right of diverse faith-based health care institutions to retain their religious beliefs and identity as part of their mission of serving others.”

But critics disagree.

“Once again, the Trump Administration is putting politics over the health and safety of Americans,” James said in a statement. “The federal government is giving healthcare providers free license to openly discriminate and refuse care to patients—a gross misinterpretation of religious freedom that will have devastating consequences on communities throughout the country.”

James continued: “Under the Rule, a hospital could not inquire, prior to hiring a nurse, if (s)he objected to administering a measles vaccination—even if this was a core duty of the job in the middle of an outbreak of the disease. Or an emergency room doctor could refuse to assist a woman who arrived with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, even if the woman’s life was in jeopardy.”

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong suggested the rule created a dangerous precedent.

“While the Trump Administration panders to the anti-choice and homophobic fringe, patients’ lives are a[t] risk,” Tong said. “This rule is dangerous, wrong and unlawful.”

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, defended the rule.

“The rule gives life and enforcement tools to conscience protection laws that have been on the books for decades,” he said. “HHS finalized the conscience rule after more than a year of careful consideration and after analyzing over 242,000 public comments.  We will defend the rule vigorously.”