WASHINGTON — The Department of Health and Human Services’ top civil rights official criticized the former Obama administration on Tuesday for the way it treated Christian organizations who objected to Obamacare’s contraception mandate.
Roger Severino, the director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights, spoke “among friends” at a lunch event Tuesday hosted by the social conservative-libertarian think tank American Principles Project Foundation in which he declared that the APP mission statement calling for “public policy with human dignity at its heart” should be the mission statement of his department.
“HHS, after all, is dedicated to the health and well-being of every American,” Severino explained. “We are everywhere. We are the largest federal agency. If we were to separate our budget as a country, we would be among the top-10 biggest countries in the world.”
“With such incredible power, we can do a lot of good to respect human dignity,” he added. “You may note that in our recent mission statement for HHS’ strategic plan, we said that all Americans from conception until natural death deserver our protections. That was a change.”
Severino, who previously served as the director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and is at the forefront of Trump’s attempt to promote religious freedom at HHS, warned that there are times that big federal agencies “forget those foundational principles.”
“The most striking example is with the Little Sisters of the Poor,” Severino said, referring to the legal battle the order of Catholic nuns had against the U.S. government beginning under Obama administration as it faced crippling fines for refusing to abide by an Obamacare birth control mandate.
The Little Sisters of the Poor was among many religious organizations, colleges, associations and institutions that sued the HHS over the mandate that they provide health care coverage of contraception to employees.
Although the organizations were provided with an “opt-out” process that would allow the government to help facilitate birth control coverage to employees, many of the organizations felt that it still made them complicit in violating tenets of their religious beliefs against contraception and abortion. Many sought the same exemption to the mandate that was provided to churches.
The groups faced millions of dollars in fines for not complying with the mandate, which threatened their existence. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other groups by remanding the cases back to the lower courts and vacating their earlier rulings.
The Trump administration ended the federal government’s defense of the Obamacare mandate in court and courts have issued rulings in favor of the religious organizations in the last two years.
“[The Little Sisters of the Poor were] dedicated to being there for the elderly in their last days, literally, so they do not die alone so that they know that they are loved, so their life has dignity and worth,” Severino explained in his remarks. “Instead of supporting this incredible organization, the HHS went after them, threatening to shut them down with millions in fines because they would not assist in the provision of contraceptives to their fellow nuns.”
“I don’t know how we got to this place but it is a very topsy-turvy world where that was the official position of the federal government and the Department of Justice for years until very recently when we undid the contraceptive mandate through regulatory rulemaking,” he added.
Last year, the Trump HHS instituted two new rules to allow non-profits and for-profit entities to make a religious or moral objection in order to obtain an exemption to the birth control mandate.
“I have learned that sometimes to counteract some of the defects of bureaucracy, you need a bureaucracy,” Severino told the crowd. “Which is why we have stood up a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division [at HHS] to institutionalize protection of 25 conscience protection statutes that Congress has passed that have either been neglected or have been completely forgotten.”
Severino took a minute from his remarks to praise leaders from the HHS Office of Civil Rights and the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.
“They are the foot soldiers of OCR,” he asserted. “We engaged in rulemaking as one of the first acts of the new division to give the same enforcement tools as with every other civil right so that people are not just discriminated against when they object to abortion, covering or paying for abortion, sterilization, assisted suicide.”
Severino pointed out that HHS received over 242,000 public comments to its proposed rules through Regulation.gov.
“I wish it were everyone. This is, in fact, democracy 2.0. This is a way you can impact agency rulemaking,” Severino said. “We are required to read the catalog and respond to every comment submitted to our proposed rules. I encourage you to watch Regulations.gov and when the time comes to make comments on the rules, submit the comments to become part of the official record and part of the litigation. Only good can come from having people from all stripes of society contribute their thoughts on how the government is doing business.”
Since taking over as the head of the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Severino has drawn the ire of left-wing activists and liberal media pundits over the fact that he has voiced opposition in the past to the political left’s LGBT agenda and has also advocated for pro-life policies.
Earlier this year, The New York Times reported on the Trump administration’s plans to eliminate another Obama-era regulation that critics said required faith-based hospitals, insurance providers and doctors to perform, provide or cover gender-reassignment surgeries even if they have religious convictions against such procedures.
Severino said at the time that the Obama administration’s interpretation of civil rights law that extended protections on the basis of sex to include gender identity "was contrary to law and exceeded statutory authority."