HHS Memo Shows Steps to Reverse Trump Admin Action to Protect Religious Liberty Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra answers questions at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 30, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Greg Nash- Pool/Getty Images)
By Charlie McCarthy | Wednesday, 17 November 2021 11:17 AM
The Health and Human Services Department is considering taking steps to reverse a Trump administration directive aimed at preventing violations of religious liberty.
An internal draft memo obtained by Fox News argues that the Trump administration may have overexpanded the Office of Civil Rights' authority when it delegated the subagency to oversee the protection of religious liberty.
The memo is addressed to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and comes from OCR Director Lisa Pino, a former Obama administration official.
The memo targets two actions related to the First Amendment from earlier this year, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits federal infringements on the free exercise of religion, Fox News said.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 provided executive agencies with guidelines on RFRA, free exercise claims, contraception in insurance plans, and other issues as the Trump administration attempted to strengthen religious liberty protections.
HHS then granted OCR the authority to conduct RFRA compliance reviews and "initiate such other actions as may be necessary to facilitate and ensure compliance with RFRA," Fox News reported.
"Prior to the delegation in 2017, no division was singularly responsible for the Department’s compliance with RFRA or the First Amendment," the memo says, Fox News reported.
"That model recognized that all components of HHS had a responsibility for compliance and that [the 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."
Becerra said that he would protect religious liberty during his confirmation hearing.
Roger Severino, who led OCR under the Trump administration, accused Becerra of breaking pledges he made to Congress.
"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," Severino told Fox News.
"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."
Severino added that Becerra has no business deciding OCR’s religious freedom authorities because he "was twice found to have violated conscience protection laws."
"Becerra told Congress that he values religious freedom and that nothing will change with OCR concerning enforcement," Severino told Fox News. “His actions since then prove that he lied and this move would put an exclamation point on his anti-religious hostility."