HHS’s latest move will likely draw more congressional scrutiny of the agency

As part of a wider effort to reverse Trump-era protections of religious freedom, the Department of Health and Human Services has removed certain faith-based exemptions from child welfare agencies.

Fox News reported last week on HHS’s interest in removing the Office of Civil Rights (OCR’s) authority to enforce Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment. This landmark statute was used in the previous administration’s policies regarding sexuality and gender. OCR Director Lisa Pino, in an internal memo, argued that the delegation of authority had led to inappropriate decisions on these issues.

This revocation was recorded in the Federal Register on Wednesday. HHS also had removed waivers for faith-based agencies such as foster care agencies, which refuse to work with gay couples. HHS stated in a press release that the waivers issued to South Carolina and Texas were too broad and inappropriate.

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra stated in a Thursday press release that “our action ensures that we are best prepared for protecting every American’s rights to be free from discrimination.” We owe it all to those who are willing to take action, regardless of whether they want to investigate, review or protect their rights, given the number of discrimination cases before us. We take any violation of religious freedoms or civil rights seriously at HHS.

The latest HHS move, which affects groups that receive federal funds, will likely draw more congressional scrutiny. Members have already criticised Becerra’s actions and introduced legislation to stop his actions.

“President Biden and Secretary Becerra are ignoring the First Amendment,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said in a statement provided to Fox News. “This action solidifies that Secretary Becerra will not keep the commitment to protect religious freedom for every American that he made during his confirmation hearing.”

Roger Severino was the OCR leader under Trump and is currently a senior fellow at Ethics and Public Policy Center. He stated to Fox News that “These outrages are just the latest in a long list of attacks on religious liberty that began when Biden assumed office and will likely continue until he and his radical HHS secretary lose the reins of control.”

He said that HHS had gratuitously stripped its Office for Civil Rights the power to accept religious freedom complaint, leaving people no choice but to sue HHS when it inadvertently violates their rights for a lack of internal checks.

In response to the administration’s wider efforts to strengthen religious liberty protections, the RFRA delegation arrived on December 7, 2017. HHS gave OCR authority, allowing it to conduct RFRA compliance review and initiate any other actions necessary to facilitate and enforce compliance with RFRA. Becerra cancelled both the Jan. 15, 2021 delegation and another.

Fox News reached out to HHS for comment but they did not respond immediately. Becerra’s Federal Register filing echoes the memo from his department in which he argued that authority should be distributed among HHS agencies.

“Department components have, in consultation and with OGC [Office of General Counsel], the responsibility and best positioned to evaluate RFRA-based applications for exemptions, waivers, and modifications of program requirements within the programs they oversee or manage.” The filing states.

Severino also cited the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The court issued a narrow decision in favor of a Catholic foster agency, which challenged Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination ordinance that required it to serve gay couples. The case was remanded and settled with Catholic Social Services retaining an exemption.