The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday in a case involving whether the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can mandate doctors to perform gender-transition surgeries on willing patients — regardless of physicians' religious principles.
The Biden administration wants the federal appeals court to drop a lower-court order which protects Christian doctors from conducting transition procedures under the Affordable Care Act.
The Washington Examiner reports that nearly 20,000 religious physicians are challenging the Biden administration's legal efforts to establish gender identity as a protected category of anti-discrimination laws.
A three-judge panel comprised of Republican-appointed justices — one through former President George W. Bush, and two through former President Donald Trump — heard the respective court arguments.
Earlier this week, Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), Specialty Physicians of Illinois and the Catholic hospital system Franciscan Alliance argued that doctors shouldn't be forced to perform, or even offer, abortion services or gender-transition surgeries to patients — if such a procedure went against their religious beliefs.
"The court asked a number of very pointed questions of the government, and the government didn't always have particularly satisfying answers," Luke Goodrich, an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, recently told the Examiner.
Citing one example, Goodrich notes that one of the judges (Don Willett) asked Biden administration officials if they could provide assurances the government wouldn't punish plaintiffs who refuse to provide abortion and/or transgender-related procedures.
"And the government said no. And that's telling because a big part of the government's position is that it hasn't made up its mind yet whether to punish these doctors and hospitals," Goodrich added.
The origin of this case took shape in a Texas federal court in 2016 when a coalition of Christian groups challenged an HHS ruling that threatened to withhold federal funding from doctors who didn't participate in procedures which involved gender identity or the termination of a pregnancy.
Then-President Obama's administration reportedly sought penalties of up to $1 million for not treating transgender or abortion-related patients.
In 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O'Connor vacated a portion of the HHS order; shortly thereafter, the Trump administration rescinded the rule altogether.
The plaintiffs in the case, however, decided to appeal to the Fifth Circuit in March 2021 to request an injunction.
"Franciscan Alliance and the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration seek to carry on Jesus Christ's healing ministry by providing the best possible care to every person who comes through our doors," said Sister Petra Nielsen of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration and member of the Corporate Board for Franciscan Alliance.
Sister Nielsen added: "We are simply asking the courts to let us keep caring for all our patients with joy and compassion — as we've done for over 145 years."
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