HHS said its move establishes "conscience protections," whereby the department's Office for Civil Rights would take the side of individuals who do not want to provide services, such as abortion, that they say conflict with their morals or religion.
The department said in its announcement that it is creating a new division, dubbed the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, within its civil rights office that will devote resources and personnel to enforcing the new guidelines and ensuring compliance.
California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 Republican in the House, spoke at the announcement on Thursday, praising the rule and blasting the department's policies under former President Barack Obama.
"In the past, this department's silent refusal to defend our rights sent a very clear message: Now is not the time for freedom; it is the time for you to conform," McCarthy said. "What a difference one year makes."
News of the move led to outrage among several groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union -- both of which pledged to fight the rule.
ACLU Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling said in a statement ahead of the announcement, "Should the administration choose to move forward to implement a discriminatory policy, we will see them in court." After the news on Thursday, she declared, "This administration isn't increasing freedom -- they're paving the way for discrimination."
A source who has been in touch with department officials, including those in the civil rights division, said ahead of the announcement that the aim would be for the department to time the announcement with Friday's March for Life in Washington, DC.
The March for Life says President Donald Trump will speak
via video satellite to the annual anti-abortion gathering, which would make him the first president to do so. Last year, Vice President Mike Pence and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway addressed
A Politico report
on the move said the change to the civil rights office was part of a larger protection plan that included a shield for health care workers objecting to treating transgender people seeking to transition.
The current head of the civil rights office at HHS is Roger Severino, who hails
from the conservative Heritage Foundation and wrote against
an attempt during the Obama-era HHS to establish protections for transgender patient care.
Melanie Israel, a research associate at Heritage, defended conscience protections in a statement to CNN, calling it "critical" for the administration to respond to moral objections.
"Ensuring that HHS funds do not support morally coercive or discriminatory practices or policies in violation of federal law should not be remotely controversial," Israel said.
The Trump administration has broken with its predecessor on several fronts in this area, and remains in a legal battle
over a decision last year to undo
the contraceptive mandate under Obamacare, which requires employers to provide employees with insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Trump originally named the Georgia Republican Tom Price to lead HHS, but Price stepped down
last year amid controversy over his use of private planes, and the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday moved forward the President's pick to replace him, Alex Azar.