Trump appointee at center of fight over religious freedom

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Roger Severino is implementing strict rules at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) meant to protect religious rights — in part because of discrimination he says he has experienced firsthand. 

The son of South American immigrants, Severino, the director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR), grew up in Los Angeles, where he says “people attempted to close doors in front of me, and I’ve had to fight to pry them open.”

In government, Severino says the discrimination he has faced has been focused more on his politics and religion.

{mosads}While working at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Office, he said a supervisor, commenting on Severino’s religious and conservative beliefs, told him, “I thought we were done hiring people like you.” 

This background led the conservative advocate, who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, to arrive at HHS with one goal: to make sure that health workers who have religious- or moral-based objections to abortions or other procedures aren’t forced by their employers to participate in them or have their jobs threatened for refusing to do so. 

“Nurses and doctors who dedicate their careers to saving lives should not be coerced into helping take lives in abortion or assisted suicide,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “This isn’t and shouldn’t be a controversial position.” 

Severino has launched a new division in the Office for Civil Rights solely responsible for enforcing laws that let health professionals opt out of procedures that violate their religion or conscience.

It is also charged with investigating claims of discrimination from those who say their religious or moral rights have been violated. 

An accompanying proposed rule, which hasn’t yet been finalized, would require entities that receive HHS funding to certify they are complying with the conscience statutes. Those that are not could lose funding.

The new focus at HHS on religious freedom has been applauded by conservative and anti-abortion rights groups, but has drawn an aggressive backlash from Democrats and LGBT advocates.

They argue the new rules could exacerbate discrimination against gay and transgender individuals by allowing people to do so based on their religious beliefs. 

“This has been a problem for many years, but we’re profoundly concerned these proposed changes and change in focus will inevitably worsen an already bad situation,” said Jennifer Pizer, law and policy director of Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization and legal group that focuses on LGBT rights. 

Overall, the changes at the OCR reflect a broader elevation of religious freedom within the administration. 

Last year, for example, HHS released a rule offering broad exemptions to ObamaCare’s contraception mandate for organizations and businesses that have religious or moral objections to providing birth control to their employees. This, too, prompted backlash from Democrats and spurred lawsuits from liberal states, but was cheered by religious and anti-abortion rights groups who saw the change as long overdue. 

“Coming in, I said a major priority would be protecting conscience and religious freedom, and we’ve done several things in respect to that. It’s a priority that’s shared by the president, the secretary, and I as well,” Severino said. 

The controversial rule on HHS funding only specifically mentions abortion, sterilization and assisted suicide as procedures that could be opted out of on religious grounds, but questions have been raised on whether it would also allow groups and businesses to opt out of procedures for gay or transgender people as well.

While at the Heritage Foundation, however, Severino argued that health professionals shouldn’t have to provide services to transgender people if it violated their religious or moral beliefs.

 “Religious liberty is a fundamental American value, but religion should not permit a person to cause harm to others or subvert the rights of others,” Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), ranking members of the House Energy and Commerce and the Education and the Workforce committees, respectively, wrote in their public comment letter on the regulation. 

“Women, minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups already face widespread discrimination in our health care system and this policy would only make this worse by offering an extensive group of individuals and entities a license to discriminate.”

In Severino’s view, he’s simply righting the wrongs of the previous administration, which conservatives argue didn’t take religious discrimination in health care seriously. 

“We’re moving from callousness, indifference and hostility to respect when it comes to religious freedom,” Severino said. 

Asked whether workers could opt out of performing other procedures, like gender reassignment surgery, Severino replied, “We’re considering public comments on several of the issues you just raised. We can’t prejudge until we consider all the public comments and come to conclusions.” 

But, he said, the proposed rule said nothing about using religion or conscience to deny care to LGBT individuals. 

“The proposed regulation mentioned abortion or assisted suicide — I think it was nearly 200 times. It mentioned LGBT issues a grand total of zero times.” 

That doesn’t soothe advocates, who argue the rule is written so vaguely and broadly that a health worker could deny care to someone who is transgender, arguing it would violate their religion or conscience. 

Severino says religious freedom is an under-enforced and neglected civil right, just as important as protections from race and gender discrimination. 

“For too long, we have not treated conscience and religious freedom on par with every other civil right,” Severino argues. 

The changes are intended to “restore the balance and parity” between religious freedoms and other rights. 

Despite the criticism from those who oppose the direction he has taken OCR in, he says he’s right where he should be. 

“It feels like all the steps I’ve taken in my career, unbeknownst to me, were leading me to this position,” he said. 

“All of those things came together in this moment where I feel I am exactly where I need to be, and that’s a very good feeling.”

Tags Bobby Scott Discrimination Frank Pallone Jr. Health care religious freedom

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