Gender transition insurance rules blocked in Christian group's challenge

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The seal of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is seen in their office in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Requirements force Christian employers to violate religious beliefs, judge says
  • Agencies said refusal to cover gender transition is discrimination
  • Judge blocked application to Christian group and its members

(Reuters) - A federal judge in North Dakota has blocked two federal agencies from forcing a Christian business group and its members to offer health insurance coverage to employees for gender transition procedures.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor in Bismarck said on Monday that regulations adopted last year by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that apply to most health insurance plans would force the Christian Employers Alliance (CEA) and its members to violate their religious beliefs, causing an irreparable injury.

"The Plaintiffs and their members face a very real irreparable harm if they are either forced to comply or if they refuse to comply," the judge wrote.

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Traynor temporarily blocked the EEOC and HHS from enforcing the regulations against the CEA and its members, pending the outcome of the group's October lawsuit against the agencies.

Jacob Reed of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group that represents the CEA, said in a statement that Traynor was on firm ground to block enforcement of the regulations.

“The employers we represent believe that God purposefully created humans as either male or female, and so it would violate their religious beliefs to pay for or perform life-altering medical procedures or surgeries that seek to change one’s biological sex," Reed said.

The EEOC and HHS deferred comment to the U.S. Department of Justice, which did not immediately respond.

HHS is facing separate lawsuits in Texas and Tennessee by doctors over a provision of the agency's regulation requiring healthcare providers who participate in Medicare and Medicaid to perform gender transition procedures.

The federal Affordable Care Act prohibits health insurance plans from engaging in discrimination, including sex bias. The U.S. Supreme Court in the 2020 case Bostock v. Clayton County held that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of unlawful sex discrimination.

The EEOC and HHS last year said they interpreted the ACA as requiring employer health insurance plans to cover surgeries and other procedures related to gender transitions.

The Washington-based CEA sued the agencies last year, claiming their reading of the law would violate religious employers' rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The group's bylaws state that "male and female are immutable realities defined by biological sex" and "gender reassignment is contrary to Christian Values."

The case is Christian Employers Alliance v. United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota, No. 1:21-cv-00195.

For the CEA: Julie Blake and Jacob Reed of Alliance Defending Freedom

For the agencies: Jeremy Newman of the U.S. Department of Justice

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.