Trump Appointee Roger Severino Continues Health and Human Services’ Religious Rights Push

screenshot of Roger Severino speaking at a 2015 C-SPAN panel discussion
Roger Severino, shown here at a 2015 Heritage Foundation panel discussion, now heads the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (screenshot via C-SPAN)
At the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Roger Severino has created a Conscience and Religious Freedoms Division to prioritize healthcare workers' religious rights

As part of a White House push to protect religious rights, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently drew up a proposal that  would allow healthcare practitioners to decline to  perform certain procedures owing to religious objections. The procedures include abortions and gender-reassignment surgeries.

In addition, the HHS proposal calls for the establishment of a Conscience and Religious Freedoms Division within the agency’s Office for Civil Rights.

“We want to provide justice to victims of unlawful discrimination and coercion,” Roger Severino, director of the Office of Civil Rights, told reporters during a conference call. Nurses and other healthcare workers shouldn’t be forced to help with abortion procedures or referrals if doing so violates tenets of their faith, he added.

Reporters  Stephanie Armour and Louise Radnofsky outlined the new HHS proposal regarding healthcare workers’ religious rights in a January 18Wall Street Journal story [subscription required].

The administration has already signaled it will rework a regulation, enacted by HHS under the Affordable Care Act, that prohibits discrimination in health care by all health care providers who get money from the federal government. That includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity and in some cases, sexual orientation.

The new regulatory action is expected to say that physicians don’t have to perform abortions or provide services related to gender transitions, for example, if they assert a religious or moral objection to doing so.

Laws already exist to shield medical personnel who don’t want to perform abortions. But antiabortion activists say those laws are inadequate to protect the nurses and other health professionals who balk at performing the procedure.

Under President Barack Obama, HHS had sought to ensure access to medical care and coverage for gay and transgender people in particular, by limiting the ability of providers to claim religious or moral exemptions.

The Trump administration changes have been championed by Mr. Severino, whose office oversees issues such as discrimination in health care regarding race, sex, religion and national origin.

As Armour and Radnofsky note, Severino’s previous employer was the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, told National Public Radio’s Alison Kodjak that the Trump administration “has taken a very expansive view of religious liberty. It understands religious liberty to override anti-discrimination principles.”

The Washington Post‘s Juliet Eilperin and Ariana Eunjung Cha also covered the story.

In response to Front Page Confidential‘s request for comment, the American Nurses Association provided a statement from Pamela F. Cipriano,the organization’s president.

Nurses “have a duty to care,” Cipriano asserted, but added that according to the code, “a nurse is justified in refusing to participate in a particular decision or action that is morally objectionable, so long as it is a conscience-based objection and not one based on personal preference, prejudice, bias, convenience, or arbitrariness.

“Nurses are obligated to provide for patient safety, to avoid patient abandonment, and to withdraw only when assured that nursing care is available to the patient,” Cipriano’s statement continues. “Nurses who decide not to participate on the grounds of conscientious objection must communicate this decision in a timely and appropriate manner, in advance and in time for alternate arrangements to be made for patient care.”

Cipriano also noted that nurses should never be discriminated against by an employer for making a conscience-based decision.

“We must take care to balance healthcare professionals’ rights to exercise their conscience with patients’ rights to access a full range of healthcare services,” the statement goes on. “Discrimination in healthcare settings remains a grave and widespread problem for many vulnerable populations and contributes to a wide range of health disparities.

“All patients deserve universal access to high-quality care and we must guard against erosion of any civil rights protections in health care that would lead to denied or delayed care.”

Then again, the Wall Street Journal quoted Roger Severino’s assertion that religious rights are civil rights: “Never forget that religious freedom is a primary freedom, that it is a civil right that deserves enforcement and respect.”

Read the Wall Street Journal story by Stephanie Armour and Louise Radnofsky here [subscription required]:

“Trump to Let Health Practitioners Skip Procedures on Religious Grounds”

Listen to Alison Kodjak‘s NPR story here:

“Trump Admin Will Protect Health Workers Who Refuse Services on Religious Grounds”

Read the Washington Post story by Juliet Eilperin and Ariana Eunjung Cha here:

“New HHS Civil Rights Division to Shield Health Workers with Moral or Religious Objections”

Atlantic’s Emma Green profiles Roger Severino here:

“The Man Behind Trump’s Religious-Freedom Agenda for Health Care”

About Jon E. Dougherty

Jon E. Dougherty has spent more than 25 years as a journalist, author, editor, reporter, and media consultant. Dougherty has a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in national security studies/intelligence analysis, and he's a U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom (2009-10).

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