HHS Unveils Conscience and Religious Freedom Division: ‘We’re Open for Business’

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

For eight years, the Barack Obama administration’s Health and Human Services (HHS) tried to force nuns and others of faith to act against their moral convictions by complying with mandates put forth in the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, including contraceptives, abortion, and assisted suicide.

But on Thursday, the agency announced a new division in its Office of Civil Rights (OCR) established to protect Americans from discrimination based on their religious beliefs.

Roger Severino, director of HHS’s OCR, announced the new conscience and religious freedom division and spoke about how the development was set in motion by an executive order issued by President Donald Trump.

“On May 4, 2017, we reached a turning point in America,” Severino said. “On that day in a beautiful Rose Garden ceremony, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on free speech and religious liberty. He promised to — quote — ‘vigorously enforce federal laws’ robust protections for religious freedom.’”

“He said, ‘We’re a nation of tolerance and that we will not allow people of faith to be bullied or targeted anymore,’” Severino said.

“With the change in tone, which has already begun, we’ve seen a change in culture, word has gotten out that we’re open for business,” Severino said.

Severino explained that his office already has enforcement authority under existing federal law, including the Church, Coats-Snowe, and Weldon Amendments.

“Under my administration, free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or synagogue, we are giving our churches their voices back, with this order, we will also make clear that the federal government will never penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs,” Trump said when he issued the order.

Several lawmakers spoke at the event, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who criticized HHS under Obama.

“This department’s silent refusal to defend our rights sent a very clear message: Now is not the time for freedom,” McCarthy said. “It is time for you to conform.”

“What a difference one year makes,” McCarthy said.

“The free exercise of religion seems to be misunderstood by some,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said. “It’s not the ability to have a religion and practice it in your place of worship.”

“It’s the ability to have a faith and live your faith wherever you are,” Lankford said. “If you have a faith and you can only practice it in your certain place of worship you don’t have real religious freedom.”

Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) cited in her remarks the Americans whose livelihoods have been threatened because of religious discrimination.

“No nurse or doctor should lose her job, her livelihood or her profession because of her faith,” Hartzler said.

Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan said healthcare workers were “bullied” by Obama’s HHS.

“Too many of these healthcare practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or moral convictions,” Hargan said at the event.

Pro-abortion advocates were quick to speak out against the new division, including Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“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,” the statement said.

But Severino said the new division would ensure Americans aren’t afraid to live out their faith in the public square.

“You do not need to shed your religious identity; you do not need to shed your moral conviction to be part of the public square,” Severino said. “Everyone has a right to an equal seat in America’s civic life.”

“The founders knew that a nation that respects conscious rights is a more diverse nation,” Severino said. “It is a more free nation and it is a more just nation.”

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