Feds launch U-turn on conscience, religious protections
Thursday, January 18, 2018
Chris Woodward (OneNewsNow.com)
The federal government has taken in major step in fulfilling Donald Trump's promise that laws protecting religious freedom will be vigorously enforced.
Today the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced the establishment of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.
The Division will be located within the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR), and organizers say it will specialize in enforcement of and compliance with laws that protect conscience and free exercise of religion, and that prohibit coercion and discrimination. (See new division's website)
"On May 4, 2017, we reached a turning point in America," says Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights. "On that day, President Trump issued a religious liberty executive order and changed the course of the federal government on the issue of religious freedom."
Severino continues: "He promised to vigorously enforce federal law and its robust protections of religious freedom. He said we're a nation of tolerance and [that] we will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced – and we are taking a giant step forward in fulfilling this promise with the announcement of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom division."
For an office in charge of protecting civil rights on the traditional protected classes of race, national origin, sex, and disability in healthcare programs, Severino says one of the best kept secrets in Washington is that OCR also enforces conscience protections in the healthcare field.
"Unfortunately these protections have been under-enforced in the past, and that has led to certain consequences," he says.
For example, from 2008 to 2016, OCR received ten complaints based on conscience. "[But] from November 2016 until mid-January, we received 34 complaints," Severino adds. "From ten all that time to 34 in a little over a year."
Why the uptick? "There are a few reasons for this, one being under-enforcement of laws already on the books that protect conscience and religious freedom," he responds. "Another aspect of this is increasing tensions on a question of the exercise of conscience and religious freedom."
If the law enforcers abandon the field, Severino says one shouldn't be surprised if people start testing the boundaries of the law – resulting in more complaints arising and more violations of rights.
"One of the purposes of launching [this] new division is to address this two-fold problem," he explains: "To make sure that we are vigorously enforcing all the laws that are on our books, and to make sure the message is sent out there that government entities have to respect the law.
"We want to provide justice for victims of wrongful discrimination and coercion under our healthcare conscience and religious freedom laws, so we are back in business."
In a related matter, the attorney for a nurse who claims she lost her job over her pro-life stance has filed a complaint with HHS. Sandra Rojas says she was shown the door after she refused to participate in abortion-related services following a merger of a women's health unit and a pediatric unit.
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, calls the establishment of this new division an "historic and positive step" by the Trump administration – particularly in comparison to the previous administration.
"The Department of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration was hostile to conscience and religious freedom rights," says Staver. "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.
"Today's announcement is refreshing and exciting. Religious freedom is our first freedom and I welcome the news," he concludes.
"I think it's a great plan to have a division that protects the freedom of conscience for healthcare workers and their religious freedom because religious freedom, after all, is often times what conscience is all about," she shares. "... It's wonderful, because they have focused attention on the fact that healthcare workers need to have a right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience."
Christian Medical & Dental Association also favors the new division, saying some of its members have been discriminated against and some have even lost positions for speaking out.
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