Ever since Donald Trump took office, we’ve been bombarded with news on a daily basis. News that would sink any other administration, or news that just makes you ask “WTF did I just read?”
But, while we’re being distracted by the outlandish behavior and statements of the Pretender in Chief, there’s usually something more sinister that slides somewhat under the radar. A case in point: this announcement published last Thursday on the HHS website:
HHS Announces New Conscience and Religious Freedom Division
Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is pleased to announce the formation of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
The Conscience and Religious Freedom Division has been established to restore federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect 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 creation of the new division will provide HHS 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.
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.
OCR Director Severino said, “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.”
Acting HHS Secretary Hargan 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.”
There’s so much wrong with this that we hardly know where to begin. Jamille Fields, a senior policy analyst at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, wrote an op-ed for The Hill in which she states:
“This is not about health care workers’ rights and this is certainly not about patients’ health care needs. This is about continuing to push the administration’s agenda. The Trump-Pence administration has just turned the agency in charge of protecting the health of all Americans into one that will devote its resources to deny essential, potentially life-saving care to people of all identities.
People have the right to be able to trust that health care providers will provide the best care possible, not worry that they may instead impose their private, religious beliefs on their patients.”
Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, vice president Of Catholics for Choice, was even more blunt in her assessment:
“This decision—not so coincidentally timed around the March for Life—is a cheap attempt by President Trump to pander to ultraconservative special interests that got him into power. Time and time again, we have seen this administration radically redefine religious freedom to impose one set of ultraconservative beliefs on all Americans.”
We’re at a very perilous time in our country’s history. Rebublicans hold the majority of state houses across the country, and have more governors as well. They’re pretty close to the magic 2/3 number that’s needed to call a constitutional convention. This is a move long desired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, commonly known as ALEC. If that happens, .we’re all in for a world of hurt.
The evangelical right has long considered themselves in a war for this country. Their ideal is a country where women should be seen and not heard, where sex for a woman is about procreation only, and where people with other gender identities are treated as unclean lepers.
At the moment, the courts provide a line of defense against the things the new division will promote. But, if HHS or the Department of Justice won’t stand up for all of us, how long will that last?
What can we do to stop this? Call your representatives at both the state and federal level. Let them know this is NOT OK, and that we’re watching them. And, most importantly, VOTE as if your life depends on it, because it does.