Elections have consequences. Many of these consequences are obvious, but not all. Some come in the form of less-noticed changes in federal government agencies that most Americans rarely think about. Yet, the actions of these agencies can have wide-reaching effects, touching the lives of average citizens. The Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) expected move to rescind a religious freedom safeguard implemented by the Trump administration is the latest example of the damage that can be done.
In the past, under Democratic administrations, HHS earned an unfortunate reputation for antagonizing religious organizations. For example, under the Obama Administration, HHS targeted groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor by compelling them to pay for contraceptives in their insurance coverage, something that goes against their faith.
Thankfully, the Trump administration worked to make clear existing federal laws protecting religious freedom would be vigorously enforced. One way they did this was by creating a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in HHS' Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to ensure that the many federal laws protecting conscience (about 25 are already on the books) were enforced. OCR was also given authority to review violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or the First Amendment, which protect the religious liberty of Americans. In one case, OCR took action against a Vermont medical center for forcing a nurse to assist in an abortion against her conscience -- a case that President Biden dropped after taking power.
Yet, the very purpose of OCR is to ensure that its programs comply with all applicable civil rights and conscience and religious freedom protections. Aside from simply not enforcing the law, the Biden administration is now seeking to revoke the authority of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division and OCR to police how HHS protects (or doesn't protect) religious freedom.
Roger Severino, President Trump's OCR Director, saw HHS's systematic assault on religious freedom under the Obama administration and set out to ensure that this could not happen again. He was instrumental in building out the OCR's role in protecting religious freedom at HHS and in establishing the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. Now a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Severino joined "Washington Watch" to react to the Biden administration's attempt to roll back religious freedom protections at HHS.
Severino described his division's role as the "watchdog" specific to religious freedom within HHS. He explained, "Just like every other civil right, we stood up a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division with career professionals to police this right, and [Biden administration officials] are trying to shut this down and reverse it by stripping it of all their authorities. It is shameful."
Notably, the current Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra pledged in his Senate confirmation hearing that he would not do this, promising that he valued religious freedom and would not change the way the OCR enforced of religious freedom protections within the agency. It certainly now looks like he lied about this.
This is hardly the first time Becerra has proven himself hostile to religious freedom. As Severino said, "He was my main antagonist when I was enforcing conscience laws... We found him to be the one responsible for violating the rights of pro-life pregnancy resource centers and also requiring universal abortion coverage again for nuns... and now he's the fox guarding the henhouse. This is nothing more than retaliation against the same office that found him to be responsible for conscience violations."
Indeed, under the Trump administration, HHS went after Becerra for violating the Weldon Amendment, the federal law protecting healthcare entities who don't want to cover abortion from being retaliated against by the government. HHS also acted against Becerra for trying to force pregnancy resource centers to post pro-abortion signs against their consciences.
With a history like this, it's no wonder that Becerra would seek to upend the division that caught him violating religious freedom protections. It was personal.
Let us not forget that revoking the ability for the Conscience Division and the OCR to enforce religious freedom protection will hurt people. More HHS mandates that contradict Americans' consciences and First Amendment freedoms will make their way out of HHS. This is harmful for everyone -- for citizens, for religious institutions, and for Americans' constitutional rights.
The structure and duties of federal government agencies matters, and the people that the president places in these roles matter. It's one of the many effects of elections that go largely unseen until they harm someone, like Catholic nuns who don't simply want to fund contraception in violation of their conscience. The importance of elections is on full display at HHS right now as the Biden administration seeks to undo the good work of Trump's HHS team.