Florida “Religious Freedom” Bill Puts Medical Patients At-Risk

I’ve written before about unnecessary laws that claim to protect religious freedom. But although the “pastor protection act” is completely unnecessary, if it actually became law it would simply duplicate the protections that are already in place. Not so for the latest attempt to “enhance” people’s corporations’ religious freedom. The “Protection of Religious Freedom” bill proposed by State House Representative Julio Gonzalez would put medical patients at risk in any Florida hospital, nursing home, doctor’s office, or medical clinic.

Here’s a link to the full text of the bill. The bill seems to be a reaction to the debacle when a pizza parlor said it wouldn’t cater a gay wedding. Not that it actually ever refused service to anyone, it just said it wouldn’t do it if the request was made. Keep in mind that Florida already has its own version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (also called “RFRA”) which would protect a similar pizza parlor if it was located in Florida and it actually refused to cater a gay wedding and it was on religious grounds and the gay couple decided to sue. But back on to the proposed law itself.

Health care isn’t pizza:

The proposed law in general is troubling since it largely duplicates the RFRA statute and would cause some unnecessary confusion and lawsuits. But here’s the part I’m really worried about. The bill says that a medical facility:

is not required to administer, recommend, or deliver a medical treatment or procedure that would be contrary to the religious or moral convictions or policies of the facility or health care provider. The facility or health care provider is not liable for such refusal, except when withholding the medical treatment or procedure places the patient in imminent danger of loss of life or serious bodily injury. Such refusal does not form the basis for any disciplinary or other recriminatory action against the facility or health care provider.

The new law is also far too broad in the way it provides for not just religious objections, but moral as well. The term “exercise of religion” is defined in the Chapter where this law would go as “an act or refusal to act that is substantially motivated by a religious belief, whether or not the religious exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.” That’s pretty nonspecific. The term “moral” isn’t defined at all. What if a doctor doesn’t like black people? Is that a moral objection? What about a doctor who has a moral objection to organ transplants? To blood transfusions? A pharmacy that objects to dispensing vaccines because they “morally” believe they cause autism?

While the government can’t pick and choose which religions or sects to favor (Catholics can refuse to treat atheists, while Mormons have to treat everyone), it also shouldn’t give companies an “out” for discrimination, especially based on vague terms like “moral conviction.” That’s the kind of thing a healthcare provider can make up on the spot if it doesn’t like someone.

In the case of the pizza parlor, or so the argument goes, if a gay couple really wants pizza at their wedding reception they can just go to a different pizza place. But healthcare isn’t pizza. A patient who’s hospitalized can’t just decide to get transferred to a different hospital because the attending physician for one he’s at has a moral objection to providing pain medication. A Hindu guy getting rushed by ambulance to the closest hospital following a horrific accident doesn’t get a menu of area hospitals showing which religious groups own them, so he can figure out which hospitals will treat a Hindu.

Oh, I got sued because I forgot to do that test? I just remembered I have a moral objection to it! Why? Because reasons.

“But doesn’t the new law also say that the medical providers can’t refuse to treat if it puts someone in ‘imminent danger of loss of life or serious bodily injury’? Doesn’t that mean they can’t discriminate if it hurts someone?”

It does say that, yes, but it only means that they can discriminate and hurt someone as long asit doesn’t kill or permanently maim them. So refusing to give a medical treatment to an atheist / Mormon / Muslim / Presbyterian / whatever is fine if it:

  1. causes them to undergo a second and otherwise unnecessary operation;
  2. causes an infection;
  3. causes anything short of death, paralysis, or amputation.

This law is also awful because it gives hospitals and healthcare providers an “out” after-the-fact in medical malpractice cases. Lawyers call this “ex post facto.” If they screw something up by forgetting to give the right medication, do the right tests, etc. and get sued, suddenly they have a moral objection to doing whatever it is they didn’t do. Because reasons.

Intended consequences:

Normally I’d say something at the end of this like “these kind of unintended consequences are what happens when bills are poorly written blah blah” but I’m not going to. The way this bill is written, it looks like giving healthcare providers an out is the entire purpose of the bill. It was written by a state legislator who also happens to be an orthopedic surgeon (let’s be realistic – it was written by a lobbyist for some organization, and then introduced by a state legislator who also happens to be an orthopedic surgeon). It looks to me like everything this bill would do is an intended consequence.