On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the launch of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within its Office for Civil Rights (OCR). OCR is tasked with enforcing federal civil rights laws related to health and human services, and this new division is intended to help it give America’s first freedom in the Bill of Rights the protection it deserves.
OCR Director Roger Severino, who was a speaker at NRB’s Proclaim 17 when he served at the Heritage Foundation, made the announcement at a major event at the HHS headquarters that also featured remarks by Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), and other special guests. Severino said, “Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced…. 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.”
Leader McCarthy, too, emphasized the importance of this new approach, particularly in light of religious freedom violations alleged in his home state of California. “Now, in the past, this department’s silent refusal to defend our rights sent a very clear message: ‘Now is not the time for freedom, it is time for you to conform,’” he said. “What a difference a year makes. This same agency is now opening a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within its Office of Civil Rights devoted to nothing more than treating people fairly and with justice.”
All the speakers applauded the launch of the office, particularly notable after the previous administration’s efforts to coerce nuns and other religious organizations to conform to their abortifacient mandate as a cost for serving their communities. In statements, Hartzler and Lankford particularly emphasized the importance of Congress passing the Conscience Protection Act to further safeguard health care professionals and organizations from government discrimination if they decline to participate in abortions because of their beliefs.
Secretary Hargan said, “President Trump promised the American people that his administration would vigorously uphold the rights of conscience and religious freedom. 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.”
More information and resources from the new HHS Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, including a portal for filing complaints, is available at www.hhs.gov/conscience.
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations
Published: January 19, 2018