A group of a dozen Senate Democrats is calling on the Department of Health & Human Services to answer questions about “deep concerns” they have with the appointment of Roger Severino as assistant secretary for civil rights, citing “bigoted statements” he made against LGBT people.
In a two-page letter obtained by the Washington Blade, the 12 Senate Democrats say past statements Severino made against LGBT people, including about transgender people’s access to transition-related care, as well as his comments against Planned Parenthood and women’s access to abortion “raise serious questions about his ability to oversee the Office of Civil Rights.”
“Mr. Severino has a long history of making bigoted statements toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and attacking women’s access to health care services and reproductive rights,” the letter says. “His appointment raises deep concerns about the employment decisions and hiring practices being established by the Trump Administration.”
Signing the letter are Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Upon news that Severino — who until recently was an analyst and blogger with the anti-LGBT Heritage Foundation — had landed an appointment as HHS assistant secretary for civil rights, LGBT rights supporters denounced the move as tantamount to appointing the proverbial fox to guard a henhouse.
In the role, Severino is charged with defending the civil rights of Americans in health care, including transgender people. But at the Heritage Foundation, Severino wrote blog posts demeaning transgender people and opposing the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure they have access to transition-related care.
After the Obama administration issued a regulation ensuring non-discrimination in health care for transgender people under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex, Severino wrote the rule would “create special privileges based on gender identity.”
Because the regulation ensures transgender people access to gender reassignment surgery, he wrote it would “force doctors to perform sex-reassignment surgeries,” erroneously suggesting it would require doctors to perform the procedure even when medically unnecessary.
It should be noted U.S. Judge Reed O’Connor issued an injunction in December barring the U.S. government from enforcing the regulation, which not only barred discrimination against transgender people, but also women who have had abortions. The U.S. Justice Department missed a deadline under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appeal that decision to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
As cited in the letter, Severino also came out in opposition to the lawsuit filed by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch against North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which barred cities from enacting pro-LGBT ordinances and transgender people from using the restroom in bathroom and government buildings consistent with their gender identity. (A replacement law signed by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, keeps certain elements of the discriminatory measure in place.)
“The radical left is using government power to coerce everyone, including children, into pledging allegiance to a radical new gender ideology over and above their right to privacy, safety, and religious freedom,” Severino wrote.
The letter from Senate Democrats also takes issue with Severino’s support for Kim Davis, the clerk in Rowan County, Ky., who instituted a “no licenses” policy in her office after the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order granting same-sex couples the right to obtain marriage licenses nationwide.
In addition to citing concerns about Severino’s writings on LGBT people, Senate Democrats also raised concerns about his opposition to access to abortion.
Severino, as the letter notes, objected to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against a Texas anti-abortion law and accused Planned Parenthood of “every trick in the book to get federal money by trying to pretend that its core business is anything but industrial-scale abortion.”
As a result of Severino’s appointment and past writings, the Senate Democrats ask HHS to respond to four questions about his appointment by a deadline of April 21:
1. How does the Department plan to promote a diverse and inclusive workforce free of prejudice or malice?
2. What are the Department’s vetting procedures for political appointees?
3. What are the Department’s plans to handle reports of inappropriate communications or behavior from staff?
4. Will Mr. Severino, as well as any other department appointee who has worked against the ACA’s nondiscrimination protections, be asked to recuse him- or herself from any decisions related to the enforcement of Section 1557?
The Washington Blade has placed a request with HHS seeking comment on the Senate Democrats’ letter.