Consistent with media reports indicating the move was coming, the Department of Health & Human Services on Thursday formally established a conscience division that critics say will allow medical practitioners to deny abortion-related services and treatment to LGBT people on religious grounds.
Roger Severino, a former Heritage Foundation scholar and now director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, said in a statement the new agency — called the Conscience & Religious Freedom Division — will help enforcement of laws designed to protect religious freedom.
“Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced,” Severino said. “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.”
As a Heritage Foundation scholar, Severino expressed anti-transgender views, such as opposition to allowing transgender people in the U.S. military and the Obama administration’s litigation against North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom law House Bill 2.
Acting Secretary of Health & Human Services Eric Hargan echoed Severino’s praise for the new division in a statement.
“President Trump promised the American people that his administration would vigorously uphold the rights of conscience and religious freedom,” Hargan said. “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.”
The new division was unveiled Thursday at HHS in an event with both Hargan and Severino as well as members of Congress who have anti-LGBT records, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
But LGBT groups decried the establishment of the Conscience & Religious Freedom Division on the basis that it would enable religious objectors to refuse to treat transgender people or provide abortion-related services.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said in a statement the new division is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“We are not fooled: The new office announced this morning is meant to make it easier for people to discriminate, not to protect people of faith,” Carey said. “Health professionals have a duty to care for all their patients regardless of one’s gender identity, sexual orientation, faith, creed, race, political views, gender or disability, and no one should be denied care for being who they are.”
Creation of the division was first reported on Wednesday by Politico in an article indicating HHS would establish the agency as part of a proposed new rule enabling religious exemptions for medical providers. Although the new agency was created, no new rule has been published in the Federal Register.
HHS hasn’t responded to repeated inquiries from the Washington Blade on the nature of the new division or whether a new rule would be forthcoming.
Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, was among the LGBT groups that criticized the new division as means to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.
“It’s amazing how the same people who regularly deride the LGBT community for seeking special rights are now reveling in the creation of special rights for themselves,” Angelo said. “Log Cabin Republicans is proud to support both religious liberty and LGBT equality, but the Conscience & Religious Freedom Division at HHS seems primed to tip the scales in favor of overly broad, vague, and frivolous complaints that disproportionately impact the LGBT community in matters — quite literally — that could mean life and death.”
Jason Lemieux, director of government affairs for the Center for Inquiry, said in a statement the new division is at odds with ensuring access to health care.
“The Department of Health & Human Services should have as its sole priority the health and well-being of every American, pursuing policies based in facts and evidence, regardless of any person’s religious beliefs or lack thereof,” Lemieux said. “This grossly misnamed division represents the opposite. It is an abdication of the department’s vital responsibility to the health of all Americans, placing the dogmatic beliefs of a few above the health and lives of the people they serve.”
Cheering the creation of the division as means to protect religious freedom, on the other hand, was Tony Perkins, president of the anti-LGBT Family Research Council.
“Health care providers and others protected under federal conscience laws should be greatly encouraged that HHS will address any government actions taken against those who have objections to participating in an abortion or purchasing health insurance that includes abortion,” Perkins said. “Americans should not be forced to choose between their faith and their desire to help patients.”
In contrast to the Trump administration, the Obama administration issued a rule interpreting the provision barring sex discrimination under Obamacare to bar medical providers from discriminating against transgender patients or women who have had abortions. After a legal challenge, however, HHS was enjoined from enforcing that rule as a result of a court order issued by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Texas.
The Center for American Progress published a report on the same day the HHS division was created indicating a significant minority of LGBT people have faced denial of services in the medical sector. The report, titled “Discrimination Prevents LGBTQ People from Accessing Health Care,” is based on a 2017 survey conducted by the organization.
Among the findings was 29 percent of transgender people surveyed said a doctor or health care provider refused to see them because of their gender identity. Another 12 percent said a health care provider refused to provide them transition-related care.
For individuals who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer, the survey found eight percent said a doctor or other health care provider refused to see them because of their sexual orientation. Another six percent said a doctor or other health care provider refused to give them health care related to being lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer.
Shabab Mirza, an LGBT research assistant at the Center of American Progress and co-author of the report, said in a statement the conscience division “is the latest in the harms the Trump administration has enacted on this community.”
“These data show the breadth of the discrimination that LGBTQ people, and especially transgender people, experience in health care settings,” Mirza said. “From avoiding doctor’s offices out of fear of discrimination, to hearing demeaning language, to being denied care outright, it is no wonder that LGBTQ people report poorer health than their peers.”
Conscience & Religious Freedom Division is created days before the anti-abortion rights March for Life rally in D.C., which President Trump is set to address via a video message. Trump may address the creation of the new division in remarks to the crowd.