HHS Established Conscience and Religious Freedom Division

Under President Trump, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has taken steps to respect Americans' rights of religious liberty and conscience, which are protected under the First Amendment.  This is refreshing after, under President Obama, HHS was focused on advancing and defending regulations under Obamacare that infringed on Americans' important rights, including litigating several losing cases all the way to the Supreme Court.

Yesterday, HHS announced the formation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights:

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 Director [Roger] 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 [Eric] 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.”

This announcement, coming directly before today's March for Life in Washington, is just the start of fulfilling the promises in President Trump's religious liberty Executive Order from last May.  

Predictably, the left is outraged, and the ACLU in particular has threatened litigation.  But also predictably, the ACLU's understanding of the Constitution is wrong, as attorney Margot Cleveland writes in National Review:

Underlying [ACLU's lawsuits against religious accommodations] is a common thread — and one that threatens the future of religious liberty in this country. . . . The ACLU is wrong: While the Supreme Court has long noted that accommodations can go too far, transforming the government from a protector of religious liberty to an enforcer of religious dogma, the sweeping assertion that accommodations that burden third parties violate the establishment clause simply does not hold true. . . .

Since the government created the onus on religion in the first place, eliminating that burden does not favor religion but rather represents, in the words of the Supreme Court, “benevolent neutrality” — something entirely consistent with the establishment clause. . . .

Throughout its history, the United States has long offered a variety of accommodations to protect citizens’ rights of conscience from the burdens imposed by otherwise just laws. Respect for the diverse tapestry of religious and non-religious beliefs and practices our country so richly enjoys is best achieved when the legislative branch crafts a compromise to protect both sincerely held religious beliefs and the compelling governmental interests at stake — something not possible if the establishment clause is stretched as the ACLU and others suggest.

We thank the Trump Administration for taking Americans' rights of religious liberty seriously and restoring the rule of law and respect for the Constitution in this important area.