Trump administration announces new 'conscience and religious freedom' division at HHS

PHOTO: Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan speaks during a daily news briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Nov. 30, 2017. PlayAlex Wong/Getty Images
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The Trump administration announced on Thursday a new division within the Department of Health and Human Services devoted to "conscience and religious freedom."

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Social conservatives and religious liberty leaders have anticipated conscience and religious freedom protections to come out of HHS, and the work of the new division, which will fall under the purview of the Office of Civil Rights, will likely pave the way for health care workers to refuse specific types of care, like birth control or abortion, based on their religious or conscience objections.

Critics say the move could hurt civil rights protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people, and hurt patient care.

Acting Secretary of HHS Eric Hargan made the announcement and was joined by Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS, House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., co-chair of 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.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, slammed the Obama administration's Office of Civil Rights.

"In the past this office sent the message, now is not the time for freedom, it is time for you to conform. What a different one year makes," he said.

Also at the announcement was Sara Hellwege, a pro-life nurse who sued Tampa Family Health Centers after she was rejected for a job because she would not prescribe birth control.

The move to create a new division at HHS for conscience and religious freedom follows President Donald Trump's signing of an executive order in May "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty," with the goal of enforcing protections for religious freedom and amending the Affordable Care Act's regulations that require the coverage of contraception. In October, the Trump administration rolled back the Affordable Care Act's birth control mandate allowing employers to deny birth control coverage if they have a religious or moral objection.

At the heart of the creation of the new division at HHS is a push by religious liberty and faith-based groups to enforce federal anti-abortion conscience laws, like the 1990s Coats-Snowe amendment and the 1970s Church amendment, which give nondiscrimination protections to federally funded programs that do not provide abortion services, and the Weldon Amendment, started under President George W. Bush.

The move Thursday could be viewed as an expansion of the Weldon amendment, which prohibits any state or local government receiving federal HHS funds from discriminating against any health care organization based on its refusal to “provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for” abortions. The Obama administration pulled back the regulations, instead leaving HHS's Office of Civil Rights to field complaints for violations of conscience and religious freedom laws.

"Enforcing these statutes," said Hargan, "will expand the already excellent work OCR does to protect civil rights."

Penny Nance, President and CEO of Concerned Women for America praised the new division. "Concerned Women for America members and particularly those who serve as medical professionals strongly support the rights of conscience. CWA has been very vocal to both the White House and Congress regarding the need to protect Americans for whom abortion is in direct conflict with their religious beliefs. Doctors, nurses, medical students and others must be protected from coercion. The vast majority of Americans agree with us on this point."

"This is a welcome change from the Obama administration’s stubborn refusal to enforce federal laws that prohibit discrimination against health care entities," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, President of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life organization.

But while pro-life and religious liberty groups have been quick to commend the Trump administration's work, abortion rights advocates and the critics have warned the policies could lead to discrimination and could hurt patient medical care.

Outside of HHS, different abortion rights groups gathered with signs, changing outside the doors in protest of the announcement.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America issued a statement slamming the Trump administration.

"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 read.

In a statement in anticipation of conscience protections for health care workers, Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “religious liberty doesn’t include a right to be exempt from laws protecting our health or barring discrimination."

"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 said.

The announcement will coincide with the start of the 2018 March for Life in Washington, D.C. which begins Thursday with a conference and concludes with a rally Friday on the National Mall featuring a satellite speech by Trump.

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