WASHINGTON — In its latest initiative to bolster religious liberty, President Donald Trump’s administration in mid-January created a new division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to expand religious freedom and conscience protections for health care workers who object to performing abortions or referring Americans to those services.

The new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, announced Jan. 18, is charged with enforcing the federal laws that already exist to protect doctors, nurses, midwives and other health care workers who refuse to perform, accommodate or assist with certain procedures on religious or moral grounds.

The new division, an entity within the HHS Office of Civil Rights, also provides an outlet for health care workers to file complaints if they believe they have been discriminated against because of their religious or moral convictions.

“Religious freedom is a civil right that deserves full enforcement and respect,” Roger Severino, the director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights, said at a news conference at HHS headquarters that featured a host of other speakers that included elected leaders, health care officials and religious-liberty advocates.

Trump promised on the campaign trail that he would protect religious freedom and that religious orders like the Little Sisters of the Poor would not be bullied by the federal government to violate their consciences. Since Trump’s election in November 2016, Severino said his office has fielded 34 complaints from health care workers alleging discrimination on the basis of religion and moral convictions. In the previous eight years, the office had only received 10 such complaints.

“You do not need to shed your religious identity, you do not need to shed your moral convictions, to be part of the public square,” said Severino, who added that the federal government in recent years did not always respect religious freedom.

“HHS has not always been the best keeper of this liberty,” Severino said.


The Mandate Battle

For more than six years during President Barack Obama’s administration, religious nonprofits and private business owners fought the mandate, issued by HHS, that required all employers to provide, without copays and deductibles, health insurance coverage for all forms of government-approved birth control, including sterilization and abortifacient drugs.

In October 2017, the Trump administration expanded the mandate’s religious exemption to include religious groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor and to organizations and small businesses that have objections based on moral convictions and religious beliefs.

“In the past 10 years, we saw rights that had never been called into question attacked as illegitimate, forcing Americans to choose between their beliefs and their livelihoods,” said Montse Alvarado, executive director of Becket, a public interest law firm that represented the Little Sisters of the Poor and several other organizations, such as EWTN, the Register's parent company, that challenged the HHS contraceptive mandate in federal court.

Alvarado said during the Jan. 18 news conference that the new division within the HHS Office of Civil Rights creates an opportunity to protect religious minorities and those who hold unpopular beliefs from discrimination in the health care field.

“This will allow them to hold the government accountable when their religious beliefs are violated,” Alvarado said.

Eric Hargan, the acting secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, said during the news conference that the new division is a “significant step” in implementing President Trump’s vision for protecting religious freedom. Hargan noted that, in May 2017, the president signed an executive order on religious liberty, where he instructed the secretaries of the Departments of Treasury, Labor and Health and Human Services to issue “amended regulations … to address conscience-based objections” to the HHS mandate.


Protecting Health Care Providers

“Too often, health care providers have been bullied and discriminated against because of their moral and religious convictions, leaving many to wonder if they have a future in our health care system,” said Hargan, who noted that various state and federal regulations over the years have forced medical students to participate in procedures that violate their consciences.

Said Hargan, “The good news is that we do already have strong laws intended to protect Americans of faith from these harms, and now they will be vigorously enforced by the Office of Civil Rights, and in particular by the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.”

Officials said the HHS Office of Civil Rights currently has enforcement authority over several federal conscience-protection statutes related to health care, such as the Church, Coats-Snowe and Weldon Amendments, as well as other federal laws and regulations that prohibit religious discrimination in a variety of HHS programs.

Those laws are intended to protect individuals like Sarah Hellwege, a nurse-midwife who told attendees at the news conference that in 2014 she was turned away from interviewing for a job at a family health center in Florida because of her membership in a pro-life medical association.

“I never dreamed that my commitment to serving women and their children would be a hindrance to being hired for a job,” said Hellwege, who describes herself as a pro-life feminist. She was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization that filed a lawsuit against the health center on her behalf.

“No doctor or nurse should be denied employment or fired on account of their faith, conscience or commitment to protecting life,” Hellwegge said.

However, critics that include groups which lobby for legal abortion and homosexual rights expressed alarm and accused the Trump administration of giving health care providers a license to discriminate.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement warning that the new HHS division “could embolden some providers and institutions to discriminate against patients based on the patient’s health care decisions.” The National Women’s Law Center accused the Trump administration of using religious freedom as an excuse “to attack the rights, health care and equality of women time and again.”


Pro-Life Praise

Pro-life organizations welcomed the news.

“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,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a prepared statement.

“We are pleased to see this new division in the face of a growing number of actions by some state governments to compel participation in abortions by health care providers and others, and because the Obama administration had effectively adopted a non-enforcement policy with respect to existing federal conscience-protection laws,” National Right to Life Committee President Carol Tobias said.

Asma Uddin, a fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, said during the Jan. 18 news conference that individuals and health care organizations do not surrender their religious-freedom protections by receiving and providing health care.

“Except in the narrowest of circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law,” said Uddin, who is a Muslim and a longtime advocate for religious liberty.

Severino, of the HHS Office of Civil Rights, said the principle of conscience has long animated the nation and its laws. He said health care is an area where issues of conscience, life and death all come to the fore.

Said Severino, “It is these fundamental questions of conscience where the state should not force people to go against their integrated view of humanity.”


U.S. Bishops

The U.S. bishops are highly supportive of the HHS new division.

“We applaud HHS for its significant actions to protect conscience rights and religious freedom. For more than 40 years — dating back to the Church Amendment of 1973 — Congress has enacted federal laws protecting rights of conscience in health care,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee for Religious Liberty, said in a Jan. 19 statement. “We are grateful that HHS is taking seriously its charge to protect these fundamental civil rights through formation of a new division dedicated to protecting conscience rights and religious freedom.”

At the same time, the bishops’ statement urged additional federal actions by HHS, noting that “we have seen states like California, New York and Oregon demand that even religious organizations cover elective abortions in their health plans. These violations of federal law require a remedy from HHS.”

As well as additional actions by HHS, Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Kurtz stressed, “Permanent legislative relief is essential. We urge Congress to pass the Conscience Protection Act in order to give victims of discrimination the ability to defend their rights in court.  No one should be forced to violate their deeply held convictions about the sanctity of human life.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.