WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced on Thursday the creation of a new division in its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) focused on protecting the right of conscience and religious freedom.
“The Conscience and Religious Freedom Division has been established to restore federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom,” the department said in a statement.
“The creation of the new division will provide HHS with the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom, the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights,” it added.
The protections most likely pertain to those who have objections to participating in abortions and those who have religious convictions about “gender reassignment” treatments and procedures. The division would enforce existing laws, such as the Church, Coats-Snowe and Weldon Amendments.
As previously reported, in August 2016, a number of states, as well as the Christian Medical and Dental Association, filed suit against HHS under the Obama administration after it released a rule that was perceived as requiring any doctor who accepts Medicare or Medicaid to provide “transgender” related services regardless of their religious objections. Services would include hormone replacement, mastectomies and hysterectomies.
A federal judge halted the enforcement of the rule, writing, “Plaintiffs will be forced to either violate their religious beliefs or maintain their current policies which seem to be in direct conflict with the rule and risk the severe consequences of enforcement.”
Roger Severino, the director of OCR, stated on Thursday that his office would investigate any complaint surrounding the violation of the conscience rights of medical professionals. He advised that there had been 34 complaints submitted since the election, and that the creation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division was the result of last May’s executive order from President Trump.
“Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the federal government. The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections,” the order read in part.
Abortion advocacy groups and others decried the news, asserting that the move was a step backward for the nation and that it legalized discrimination.
“This announcement marks the Trump administration’s latest step toward turning the Department of Health and Human Services into a place where backwards ideology rules, and science, ethics, and concern for the well-being of all Americans are non-existent,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement.
“This administration has taken a very expansive view of religious liberty,” Louise Melling of the ACLU also told NPR. “It understands religious liberty to override anti-discrimination principles.”
However, during an event on Thursday announcing the new HHS division, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, opined that the protection of religious freedom was a step in the right direction, noting that under the Obama administration, people of faith were expected to conform to the government’s views.
“This department’s silent refusal to defend our rights sent a very clear message: Now is not the time for freedom. It is time for you to conform,'” he said, speaking of the HHS under Obama. “What a difference one year makes.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-OK, also noted that the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion is misunderstood as some wrongly believe it only pertains to worshiping in a church building.
“It’s the ability to have a faith and live your faith wherever you are,” he explained. “If you have a faith and you can only practice it in your certain place of worship, you don’t have real religious freedom.”
“Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced,” Severino also said in the press release. “No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice.”
“For too long, governments big and small have treated conscience claims with hostility instead of protection, but change is coming and it begins here and now.”