Announced on Thursday, the new division called the “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” will be part of the Office for Civil Rights of the HHS. According to the HHS, it will specialize in the “enforcement of and compliance with laws that protect conscience and the free exercise of religion, and that prohibit coercion and religious discrimination," in an effort to protect healthcare workers who object to performing abortions or treating gay and transgender people on the basis of “moral” grounds.
The announcement is already being met with strong objections from civil rights groups, healthcare worker organizations, abortion rights groups, and LGBT activists.
“Religious liberty doesn’t include a right to be exempt from laws protecting our health or barring discrimination," said Louise Melling, the deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement. "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," Melling also said.
Many are viewing the latest move by the Trump administration as an expansion of the Bush era’s Weldon amendment, which prevents any state or local government from being able to receive federal HHS funds if they prevent any healthcare organization from being able to refuse to “provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for” abortions based on religious objections.
Acting Secretary of the HHS, Eric Hargan made the announcement while being joined by Roger Severino, the director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS, House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
Roger Severino has long been criticized for being against LGBT rights. He is also a conservative writer for the Heritage Foundation, where he has been outspoken against transgender rights in addition to being the director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society in the Institute for Family (yes that DeVos). “Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced.” Severino said regarding the new division. “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.”
The announcement will coincide with the beginning of the 2018 March for Life in Washington, D.C., where President Trump will make a speech via satellite.
2017 was already one of the most devastating years with regards to the administration’s removal of transgender protections. 2018 appears to be no different.