Three advocacy groups sued HHS Thursday to block its recent move to eliminate a rule protecting LGBTQ people and others from discrimination in the agency's grant programs.
Family Equality, True Colors United, and Services & Advocacy for LBGT Elders filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan challenging the administration's actions under the Administrative Procedure Act.
In November, HHS announced it would stop enforcing the Obama administration's 2016 non-discrimination rule and also issued a proposed rule offering grant recipients protection under federal law protecting religious liberty. Those moves erased the Obama administration's protections for sex, race, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation in HHS grants.
The HHS actions apply to nearly $500 billion a year in grants and contracts for services such as shelter care, substance use treatment, Head Start, HIV prevention, and community health centers.
The administration's policy changes allow programs to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion. Under the proposed rule, people would only be protected from discrimination to the extent that such discrimination is already barred by federal law. But there is no law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The advocacy groups warned that the changes would particularly hurt LGBTQ children and youth and LGBTQ couples that want to adopt or serve as foster parents, who are likely to be subject to discrimination by religious-based private child welfare agencies. It also could affect non-Christian people who want to adopt or become foster parents.
HHS justified the policy changes by saying the federal government is required to not infringe on religious freedom in its operation of grant programs.
The moves were part of a broader push by the Trump administration to allow healthcare and social service providers to make decisions based on their religious and moral beliefs.
An HHS rule set to take effect last November, which was blocked by a judge, would have cut off federal funding to any healthcare organization that did not allow its staffers to opt out of services that are contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions.
In November, all Senate Democrats sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar demanding that HHS rescind the proposed rule and the non-enforcement announcement. They called it "unconscionable that HHS has disregarded essential nondiscrimination provisions."
Last month, a watchdog group called Democracy Forward sued the administration demanding release of records detailing the decision to stop enforcing the non-discrimination rule. It seeks information on what groups lobbied for the policy change.
Christina Wilson Remlin, lead counsel at Children's Rights, said the Trump administration should be focused on expanding the pool of prospective foster and adoptive parents, not turning them away based on sexual orientation or religion.
"This is part of the broader administration agenda of creating an authorization to discriminate based on religious or other deeply held beliefs," she said. "It opens an avenue for providers to force vulnerable young people to adopt their religious beliefs, even if that runs counter to the wellbeing of these young people."
HHS said it does not comment on pending litigation.