Officials said the division, part of the HHS' Office of Civil Rights, will stand ready to assist health care workers who say they're being coerced into participating in procedures that violate their beliefs.
Critics of the move predicted the new division, whose creation was praised by conservative Christian advocacy groups that have strongly supported Republican President Donald Trump, would become embroiled in current litigation over whether healthcare workers can deny care to women seeking abortions or birth control as well as gay and transgender patients. OCR is the law enforcement agency within HHS that enforces federal laws protecting civil rights and conscience in health and human services, and the security and privacy of people's health information.
"No one should be denied health care - including safe, legal abortion - due to their health provider's beliefs", said Planned Parenthood, which provides legal abortions.
"Enforcing these statutes", said Hargan, "will expand the already excellent work OCR does to protect civil rights".
Roger Severino, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights, has actively opposed civil rights protections for minority communities.More news: Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong jailed over 2014 pro-democracy protest
On the same day the new division was announced, Buzzfeed News reported that HHS hid thousands of critical remarks against a religious freedom proposal from October that would give religious health organizations public funding. In the announcement, Trump commented, "Our forefathers, seeking refuge from religious persecution, believed in the eternal truth that freedom is not a gift from the government but a sacred right from Almighty God".
How the new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom plays out in the long run remains to be seen.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force issued the following statement: "We are not fooled: The new office announced this morning is meant to make it easier for people to discriminate, not to protect people of faith".
"For more than 40 years, federal law has protected the conscience rights of all Americans in the context of health care", said Melanie Israel, a research associate for the Heritage Foundation, in a statement emailed to LifeZette. What happened under the previous administration, she said, resulted in "forcing Americans to choose between their beliefs and their livelihood". Unfortunately, not all have recognized the importance of religious freedom, whether by threatening tax consequences for particular forms of religious speech or forcing people to comply with laws that violate their core religious beliefs without sufficient justification. "They say it's for religious liberty".
"This would be yet another attempt to let ideology dictate who is able to get the care they need", Murray said.
"Any healthcare worker who has moral objections to providing medically necessary care to an entire vulnerable population is in the wrong line of work", said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD.
From Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center: "This extreme new HHS rule will quite possibly cost lives by giving medical providers cover not to treat people they disagree with, no matter how life-threatening or urgent the medical need".