Photo Credit: Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0)
Photo Credit: Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0)

(Washington, DC) On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

HHS said they established the division to restore federal enforcement of federal law that protects the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom. OCR is the law enforcement agency within HHS that enforces federal laws protecting civil rights and conscience in health and human services, and the security and privacy of people’s health information.

The new division, HHS announced in their press release, provides the department “with the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom, the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights.”

The HHS announcement stated that OCR already has enforcement authority over federal conscience protection statutes, such as the Church, Coats-Snowe, and Weldon Amendments; Section 1553 of the Affordable Care Act (on assisted suicide); and certain federal nondiscrimination laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion in a variety of HHS programs.

“Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced. 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,” OCR Director Roger Severino 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.” Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan noted.

“Health care providers who are Muslim, Sikh, Orthodox Jewish, or any other faith, deserve the right to provide medical care without violating their deeply held religious beliefs. For a nation as diverse as America, it is important for our civil rights laws to protect our First Amendment rights as much as possible. In America, we have the free exercise of religion—individuals cannot just have a faith, but they can also live out their faith outside of the confines of their home or place of worship,” U.S. Senator James Lankford (R-OK), who attended the event for the formal announcement, said.

Lankford said Congress must go further calling for legislation.

“Today’s announcement is a welcomed change and positive step forward, but Congress still needs to do its job as well. We need to pass the Conscience Protection Act to further codify protections in law and ensure that an individual has a legal remedy to defend their constitutional rights,” he said.

Conservative and pro-life groups applauded the announcement.

“One of the freedoms Americans have cherished most is the freedom to live according to their faith and conscience, free from government coercion. That freedom is what separates America from so many other nations. For that reason, we commend HHS for creating its new Division on Conscience and Religious Freedom within its Office of Civil Rights. Over recent years, we have seen the government repeatedly violate constitutionally protected freedoms. The government should serve as freedom’s greatest protector, not its greatest threat. This new office will help ensure that HHS acts in accordance with its duty to honor Americans’ freedom of religion and conscience rather than coerce nuns, faith-based universities, Christian-run family businesses, and pro-life organizations to speak and live contrary to their own beliefs. That’s a mission that all Americans concerned about government overreach can support,” Kristen Waggoner, Senior Vice President of U.S. Legal Division at Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a released announcement.

Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins applauded not only the opening of the office but new proposed HHS regulations that protect medical personnel and medical students who have a moral objection to life-ending drugs, devices or procedures.

“Those who would force others to end pre-born life or face severe consequences should face civil rights penalties,” said Hawkins. “The Obama Administration moved from ‘choice’ to coercion in broadly redefining contraception to include things like ella that can end pre-born life and then requiring compliance with the anti-life proposals or face the force of law. As a nation, we rely on the healing hearts of medical professionals who pledge to ‘do no harm.’ No one trained to help others should be forced to end life or face career-ending punishments.

“Not only do we stand with medical and nursing students who hope to save lives in their careers. We represent Millennials who are more pro-life than their parents’ generation and who abortion as a human rights issue. This is the kind of course correction in public healthcare policy that voters expected of the Trump Administration, and we welcome the enhanced protections,” Hawkins said.

Susan B. Anthony List also applauded the new division and the new proposed regulations.

“We thank President Trump for standing up in bold defense of conscience rights. This Administration realizes that abortion is a highly controversial, brutal act against unborn children and their mothers and affirms the right of all Americans not to be forced to participate in abortion. This is a welcome change from the Obama administration’s stubborn refusal to enforce federal laws that prohibit discrimination against health care entities,” SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said.

“We also urge the administration to release new regulations further clarifying the laws this division will enforce. This is an essential step to protect pro-life nurses like Cathy DeCarlo, who was threatened with the loss of her job if she didn’t assist in a traumatic late-term abortion and other health care professionals from being forced to participate in the destruction of innocent lives. We also continue to urge Congress to enact a private right of action so victims will be able to seek relief in court regardless of who is in the White House,” she added.

“The establishment of a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division by the Department of Health and Human Services within its Office for Civil Rights is a historic and positive step by the Trump administration to protect religious freedom and the rights of conscience. The Department of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration was hostile to conscience and religious freedom rights. Today’s announcement is refreshing and exciting. Religious freedom is our first freedom and I welcome the news that HHS is committed to protecting our precious freedom. The Trump administration is to be commended for making this 180-degree turn from the past administration which used the federal government to violate religious freedom and conscience rather than protecting them. This move sends a strong message that there must be a commitment to protecting religious freedom,” Liberty Counsel President Mat Staver said.

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