A Trump administration official charged with protecting civil rights has major plans for defending abortion opponents and promoting religious freedom, he said in a rare and wide-ranging interview.
Roger Severino, the director for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights, highlighted his goals to investigate states that require insurance to cover abortion, protect individuals who reject certain vaccinations on religious grounds, and defend students training to be medical providers if they object to participating in abortions.
Severino’s focus was evident when he helped create a division within his office related to religion and moral conscience objections in January 2018. So far, the division has halted two state policies that required pregnancy centers to display information about abortion.
OCR is now reporting a rise in civil rights complaints related to a person’s moral beliefs, with 343 complaints in fiscal year 2018 compared to just 10 similar complaints throughout the entire eight years of the Obama administration.
Severino said the numbers of religious and moral discrimination complaints rose steadily after President Donald Trump took office, as more individuals felt comfortable in reporting their concerns about issues such as abortion.
“The word has gotten out that we’re open for business and we are going to take the laws that we enforce seriously, “said Severino. “There’s a real issue out here where people feel their rights have been violated and that they need redress and I think that explains the big growth in the number of complaints. It’s been long overdue that they need attention.”
OCR says it received 1,333 complaints in fiscal 2018 alleging either religious or moral conscience discrimination. The number of religious complaints during the Obama administration wasn’t available, but conscience complaints averaged just 1.25 per year during the previous administration.
Overall, the civil rights office received a total of 33,194 complaints in fiscal 2018 on any kind of discrimination — a 16 percent increase from the previous year. OCR enforces federal anti-discrimination laws affecting race, color, national origin, disability, age, and sex in programs that receive agency funding.
The office took action on about 86 percent of discrimination cases overall, according to HHS’ fiscal 2020 budget request. So far, only two cases affecting religious or moral conscience complaints have been resolved since the division was formed. But Severino is looking to expand that.
HHS is expected to soon release the final version of a rule that could broaden the types of issues that could qualify as a violation of religious or conscience rights.
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Abortion-related cases account for the largest uptick in the religious and moral conscience cases, said Severino, who previously worked at the Justice Department and the conservative groups The Heritage Foundation and Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
“There’s been a troubling trend of states moving against entities who do not want to refer for abortions or pay for them and states who are trying to force individuals to also pay for abortions or abortion coverage,” he said. He cited a California law that required pregnancy centers to provide information about abortions, which the Supreme Court struck down in 2018.
A complaint about the California law was one of the two cases the office resolved, while the other was a similar law in Hawaii that OCR blocked in March. Severino said other states have also been compliant since the Supreme Court ruling.
“We hope this trend isn’t going to be reversed because it’s against the law and we’re moving to make sure that states understand their obligation to comply with the law,” he said.
Severino also is closely watching situations in which medical providers are asked to perform abortions. Anti-abortion advocacy groups have also highlighted these types of concerns, often citing a case involving a New York nurse who successfully sued HHS after her employer required her to assist in an abortion.
“We’ve seen deals with hospitals trying to bully nurses or doctors into performing or assisting in abortions against their will and in violation of federal law,” said Severino.
Overall, these types of alleged violations occur much less frequently than other forms of civil rights discrimination under OCR’s purview.
Severino said abortion remains a significant priority for conscience and religious issues because protections are written explicitly into several federal statutes.
Last year, the agency revoked an Obama-era guidance document that prevented enforcement of the Weldon amendment, an annual appropriations rider that blocks federal funding for groups that discriminate against entities that refuse to perform, pay for, or refer for abortion.
Severino said his office has started looking into claims related to whether states may be violating the amendment, saying he “will investigate them fully.”
A California state law requires fully-insured plans to cover abortion, although it and other states are barred from using federal funding for covering abortion. New York, Oregon and Washington have similar requirements.
“Wherever the facts and the laws lead us, there we will go,” he said.
He estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 people “lost their abortion-free plans when California moved to require universal abortion coverage.”
OCR is also looking at other forms of religious discrimination, including enforcing federal protections for people who receive state exceptions to vaccination requirements because of religious beliefs. Some people don’t want to administer or receive vaccines that may have been derived from fetal tissue-derived cell lines.
“The proposed regulation includes federal conscience protections that may apply to certain federal programs where state religious exemptions to vaccination already exist. It’s a piggy-backing provision that does not displace state vaccination requirements or laws,” Severino said.
Severino also wants to prevent medical students who do not want to be trained to perform abortions or other activities from facing discrimination.
He also pointed to language under the 2010 health care law that prohibits discrimination against individuals who refuse to help with physician-assisted suicide as an area that “merits serious attention in the full spectrum of conscience protections.”
The upcoming release of the agency’s rule will give Severino’s office additional authority. Despite rising concerns from some liberal advocacy groups about the proposed version, Severino said the rule will only be used to build on Congress’ intentions. The rule, which has been under final review since January, would expand the types of activities health professionals could decline to assist in on moral or religious grounds.
Severino said Congress has passed 25 difference conscience protections over the years, and said the rule would allow OCR to better enforce these policies. Many of these provisions deal with different aspects of abortion. The word “abortion” is mentioned over 150 times in the proposed version of the rule.
“There are many, many issues that are covered that Congress has granted exceptions for,” Severino said. “Part of the rule-making is to provide additional clarity on those points so people know what their rights are and know what their obligations are.”
Advocates of groups that promote LGBT rights have spoken against about the possible scope of the rule, although it does not contain explicit references to gender identity or sexual orientation. Severino says these claims of possible discrimination are unfounded.
“Congress itself has struck the balance for us. When they passed the conscience protection laws, they used very specific language and tied the protections specifically to certain funding streams,” said Severino.
“What Congress provided in the statutes is what the conscience regulation is going to enforce. There’s nothing in the regulation that would go beyond what Congress passed. I’m not aware of any claims that have been filed alleging any LGBT identity issues where somebody sought protection under the conscience protection statutes. Everything has been really very hypothetical in saying that conscience protection statutes are implicating a whole range of issues that we have not yet seen out in the world.”