The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services has announced the creation of a new division dedicated to helping maintain religious liberty.
The official announcement regarding the formation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division came Thursday during an event hosted by HHS’ Office of Civil Rights. The event was attended by several GOP lawmakers, who discussed why the new division is needed.
“We face today a time of rising religious persecution,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, according to Townhall. “It’s not violent, it’s not done in the name of God but it is a new orthodoxy and it is an intolerant dissent.”
The second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives specifically referenced a court battle involving the Little Sisters of the Poor — a group of nuns who refused to obey an Obamacare mandate that forces employers to cover the costs of contraception and abortion-inducing drugs, The Daily Signal reported.
“Nuns have been forced to put aside their lives of service of the elderly and sit and have to go to court humbly requesting that they not be required to pay for practices that end the lives of children,” McCarthy said.
Moreover, the California Republican discussed a mandate from his own state forcing pro-life pregnancy centers to inform patients about abortion and contraception options.
A group of pro-life clinics filed a legal challenge against the mandate, taking it all the way to the Supreme Court and receiving the backing of the Trump Justice Department along the way.
These pregnancy centers, McCarthy said, are being “forced against their deepest beliefs to advertise for an abortion industry bankrolled by the state.”
McCarthy also talked about another California mandate — this one issued in 2014 — which says health insurance companies must pay for elective abortions. He said he has “high hopes that violations of the Weldon amendment and the arrogance of the California abortion mandate AB775 will be investigated and resolved quickly.”
Many of those present at Thursday’s event — including McCarthy — could not help but notice how much has changed at HHS, specifically the civil rights office, in the year since President Donald Trump took office.
“In the past this office sent the message, now is not the time for freedom, it is time for you to conform. What a difference one year makes,” McCarthy said.
Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford expressed similar sentiments, thanking OCR for realizing that “religious intolerance is a personal choice” rather than “a legal requirement.”
Meanwhile, OCR Director Roger Severino emphasized the importance of religious liberty as a “civil right” and a “primary freedom.”
“The new division will ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said.
According to acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan, the changes in his department’s goals have been a long time coming.
“For too long too many of these health care practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against because of their religious beliefs and moral convictions, leaving many of them to wonder whether they have a future in our health care system,” he said.
“When faithful Americans are bullied out of the public square and out of public service, when bigotry is allowed to flourish, we all lose.”
But news of the religious freedom division was not well-received by all.
In a statement, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Louise Melling said the Trump administration is “prioritizing providers’ beliefs over patients’ health and lives,” thus “paving the way for discrimination.”
“We may not know exactly what this new division will look like in practice, but we do know that this means they prioritize religious liberty over the health and civil rights of women, transgender people, and others,” Melling said.
Others, though, acknowledged that the new HHS division could serve an important need.
“Conscience protections for health professionals and religious institutions, particularly in the abortion context, are long-standing and deeply rooted,” Notre Dame Law School professor Richard Garnett told Reuters.
“To me, there should be nothing particularly surprising or troubling about an administration, this one or any other, deciding that the Civil Rights Division should allocate resources to make those protections meaningful.”
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