Donald Trump has once again pandered to his conservative and religious support base, forming a new “conscience and religious freedom” division within the Department of Health and Human Services. The division, which will fall under the Office of Civil Rights, could allow for health care workers to refuse care to any person for birth control or abortion based on their religious or conscience objections.
Acting Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan made the announcement, joined by director of the Office for Civil Rights Roger Severino, House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) co-chair of the House Values Action team and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
“President Trump promised the American people that his administration would vigorously uphold the rights of conscience and religious freedom,” said Hargan. “That promise is being kept today. The Founding Fathers knew that a nation that respects conscience rights is more diverse and more free, and OCR’s new division will help make that vision a reality.”
“Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced,” Severino said. “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.”
The creation of the division follows an executive order Trump signed in May that promotes free speech and religious liberty, which would enforce protections for religious freedom. It also amends the Affordable Care Act’s regulations which required the coverage of contraception. In October, the administration also rolled back the ACA’s birth control mandate and allowing employers to once again deny contraception coverage if they had a religious or moral objection to providing it. LGBT organizations are condemning the division on the grounds that it could open the way for discrimination against the people of the LGBT community who seek health care.
“Denying LGBTQ people and women medically necessary, potentially life-saving care is extremely dangerous,” said Rev. Stan J. Sloan, CEO of the Family Equality Council. “Allowing health and human services providers to refuse services to women or LGBTQ people based on personal, religious beliefs constitutes an attack on our community, our health, and our families.”
“Religious liberty doesn’t include a right to be exempt from laws protecting our health or barring discrimination,” Louise Melling, the deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “Denying patients health care is not liberty. Choosing your patients based on their gender or gender expression is not freedom. Should the administration choose to move forward to implement a discriminatory policy, we will see them in court.”
Full HHS release is at hhs.gov/conscience