Fox News reports that the Biden administration may be looking to undo a step taken by the Trump administration that was meant to increase the protection of Americans’ Constitutionally-protected right to religious freedom.
The Health and Human Services Department (HHS), led by Secretary Xavier Becerra, is considering the matter. But, before we get to the specifics, let’s look at the Trump administration measure that is under attack.
The reader will likely remember that one of former President Donald Trump’s goals was to increase the protection of Americans’ religious freedoms. Trump made this clear with an executive order that he signed early in his presidency.
Back in December of 2017, following that executive order, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s Attorney General, provided executive agencies with a list of guidelines having to do with the religious protections offered by the U.S. Constitution and by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prevents the federal government from infringing on one’s right to the free exercise of religion.
After that, Trump’s HHS gave the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) the authority to conduct RFRA compliance reviews and to “initiate such other actions as may be necessary to facilitate and ensure compliance with RFRA.” This is what the Biden administration is targeting, the delegation of this authority to the OCR.
The OCR is expected sometime this week to send a memo to Becerra asking that he reconsider the delegation of authority to the OCR to conduct RFRA compliance reviews.
“Prior to the delegation in 2017, no division was singularly responsible for the Department’s compliance with RFRA or the First Amendment,” a draft of the OCR’s memo reads.
That model recognized that all components of HHS had a responsibility for compliance and that OGC [Office of General Counsel] was a central partner in providing key legal advice on RFRA and defending the Department when RFRA claims were raised. Rescinding the delegation to OCR does not lessen the commitment of the Department to compliance, but ensures that it is not misused by any one agency to enact a broad, proactive agenda.
In other words, OCR is suggesting that Trump gave to it too much authority, and it is now, more or less, asking that the Biden administration take it away.
The Trump admin’s response
After the above news broke, Roger Severino, the man who was the HHS Secretary under Trump, responded with a statement targeting Becerra.
Because Becerra was twice found to have violated conscience protection laws by OCR, he has no business deciding its religious freedom authorities given his massive conflict of interest. Becerra told Congress that he values religious freedom and that nothing will change with OCR concerning enforcement. His actions since then prove that he lied and this move would put an exclamation point on his anti-religious hostility.
Severino also warned:
HHS centralized authority over religious freedom claims because the laws weren’t being enforced and because that’s how we enforce every other civil right. Without dedicated staff responsible for investigating religious freedom complaints, HHS will return to trampling people’s rights as before — just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor.