The Trump administration is seeking to offer protection to health care workers who object to procedures such as abortion or assisted suicide on religious grounds.
In January, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed a new rule, “Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care.” The rule, which has not yet been made final, would not only beef up protection for those who refuse to perform procedures on the grounds that they violate their beliefs, but also require agencies funded by HHS to comply with the rule.
The rule would require students or job applicants to be notified of their religious and conscience rights, and could delve into issues such as requirements imposed by some states that pro-life pregnancy centers provide abortion information.
Roger Severino, who heads the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at HHS, likens the fight to protect religious freedom to the civil rights era, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced,” Severino said when the office was created in January. “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.”
Severino told NPR that his division’s goal is to bring to life the promise Trump made in a May 2017 executive order promoting religious freedom.
“He said we’re a nation of tolerance, and we’ll not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore. And this is just a natural outgrowth of that. We have a lot of statutes and laws on the books that protect conscience. They protect religious freedom. They have not been enforced as they deserve to be enforced, and this is a crucial civil right that is now getting the attention that has been long overdue,” he said in a January interview.
Severino said health care workers should not be forced to do what they believe to be wrong because they fear being fired if they refuse.
“Nurses and doctors who dedicate their careers to saving lives should not be coerced into helping take lives in abortion or assisted suicide,” he told The Hill. “This isn’t and shouldn’t be a controversial position.”
“For too long, we have not treated conscience and religious freedom on par with every other civil right,” Severino said.
Severino has said that the fight against religious persecution is nothing new, citing Nazi oppression of the Jews in World War II.
However, his office and its actions have raised hackles.
The new rule and HHS division are “potentially really damaging to women” as well as gay and transgender individuals, said Jocelyn Samuels, who headed the HHS civil rights office during the administration of former President Barack Obama.
Others say it is about time that laws to protect conservative Christians are finally enforced.
“These are longstanding laws on our books for decades, and now they are going to be enforced,” said Michael Berry, deputy general counsel for the First Liberty Institute.
“This is about enforcing the laws that have been ignored for too long, that have been passed by Congress year after year with bipartisan support,” Severino said. “And that’s what this is all about — going back to protecting are fundamental principles of conscience and religious freedom.”
Severino said that his office’s mission is to promote freedom.
"Never forget that religious freedom is a primary freedom, that it is a civil right.” -Roger Severino, Health and Human Services’ Conscience and Religious Freedom… https://t.co/gikSYzs6Cx
— Catholic Medical Association (@catholicmed) April 13, 2018
“If somebody takes an unpopular view, the government should not come in and say, you cannot speak because we do not like your views — same thing in the health care space. The government should not be saying, ‘You cannot have a job; you cannot be a nurse because of your views on abortion.’ This is about tolerance on all sides,” he said.
“America has reached a point where people understand that you should not be forcing others to perform abortions against their will. After Roe v. Wade, regardless of what people think about the legality of abortion, most people think that you shouldn’t be forcing other people to perform abortions, pay for them, cover, refer for them, and that’s enshrined in our laws. And that’s what this is about,” he said.
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