The most immediate effect came from the Department of Health and Human Services, where officials issued new rules to largely dismantle the contraceptive mandate for health insurance. (In this case, the rollback also coincided with another top administration priority: to destabilize the Affordable Care Act.) Social conservatives have fought the mandate for years, arguing it compelled employers to violate their religious beliefs. Defenders said it insulated employees and their medical decisions from the personal beliefs of their employers.
Sessions adopted the social-conservative stance in Friday’s memo. The government, he wrote, could not “second-guess the determination of a religious employer that providing contraceptive coverage to its employees would make the employer complicit in wrongdoing in violation of the organization’s religious precepts.” In practical terms, my colleague Vann Newkirk explained, the new rules will now allow virtually any employer to claim the exception and stop providing employees with insurance plans that include contraception.
The Obama administration faced prolonged legal battles during its tenure over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, including two Supreme Court cases. Friday’s shift could lead to similar clashes. The ACLU said it would challenge the administration’s reversal only hours after the announcement, arguing it violates the Constitution’s religious-freedom and equal-protection guarantees. Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney for the organization, said the administration “is forcing women to pay for their boss’s religious beliefs.”
Democratic-led states could also join the fight. “We have been anticipating this awful idea and have already begun working with other states to evaluate any legal response that may be appropriate to protect our citizens’ private decisions and access to affordable healthcare,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement.
Sessions’s memo also sets the stage for federal departments and agencies to withdraw Obama-era protections for LGBT rights. The rules give broad deference to claims brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that forbids the government from “substantially burdening” any exercises of religious belief. Because the memo gives maximum latitude to invocations of religious belief, it could limit discrimination claims made by gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans.
“This guidance is designed to do one thing—create a license to discriminate against the LGBTQ community and others, sanctioned by the federal government and paid for by taxpayers,” Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration, said in a statement. Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, accused Trump of furthering a “cynical and hateful agenda” and said the memo “will enable systematic, government-wide discrimination that will have a devastating impact on LGBTQ people and their families.”