Religious Freedom Counts First In This HHS Civil Rights Division : Shots - Health News Roger Severino created a new division in the Department of Health And Human Services to guard the religious rights of health care workers. That worries some advocates for women and LGBTQ people.
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Civil Rights Chief At HHS Defends The Right To Refuse Care On Religious Grounds

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Civil Rights Chief At HHS Defends The Right To Refuse Care On Religious Grounds

Civil Rights Chief At HHS Defends The Right To Refuse Care On Religious Grounds

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Roger Severino is a successful civil rights lawyer. When he was at the Justice Department, he fought to uphold the rights of African-Americans trying to rent homes after Hurricane Katrina. And he won. For the last year, though, under President Trump, he has led the Office for Civil Rights in the Health and Human Services Department. And in that time, he has put the right to religious freedom front and center as he fights against discrimination in health care.

Here's Severino back in January when he announced the creation of a Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom within HHS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROGER SEVERINO: Times are changing, and we are institutionalizing a change in the culture of government, beginning with HHS, to never forget that religious freedom is a primary freedom, that it is a civil right that deserves complete enforcement and respect.

MARTIN: NPR health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak has this profile of Roger Severino.

ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: There's a good chance you didn't know that the nation's health department has a team of lawyers dedicated to protecting your civil rights. Traditionally, they focus on making sure you're not denied medical care because of your race or gender or on protecting your medical privacy. Roger Severino says he plans to continue to defend those rights. But he's also made it clear that his top priority is to protect health care providers' religious freedom.

SEVERINO: America's doctors and nurses are dedicated to saving lives. And they shouldn't be bullied out of the practice of medicine simply because they object to performing abortions against their conscience.

KODJAK: When I sat down with Severino last month, he pointed me to his long and distinguished record of achievement in civil rights and says it took root in his childhood. He grew up in LA as the Spanish-speaking child of Colombian immigrants.

SEVERINO: I had experienced discrimination as a child. And that leaves a lasting impression.

KODJAK: Kids at the public pool where he took swimming lessons hurled racial epithets his way. And when he got to high school...

SEVERINO: The menu of options I was given were remedial classes, the equivalent of shop class and a vocational class. And I said, well, don't you offer honors classes? And the counselor, who was white, said, yeah, but you'd have to take a test.

KODJAK: Severino is conservative and a devout Catholic. He previously worked at the Becket Fund, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on religious freedom. And he ran a center on religion at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Since he joined HHS just a year ago, he's issued a new rule that allows employers to refuse to cover birth control if they have a religious or moral objection. And he created the new Religious Freedom Division to ensure that health care workers and companies are never forced to participate in medical services like abortion if they object.

SEVERINO: All we're doing is saying that we will be enforcing all the civil rights laws. And all those civil rights laws include conscience and religious freedom. And we believe they weren't given the proper attention for too long a time.

KODJAK: Severino's critics say his efforts are likely to make it harder for women to get abortions. But they could go much farther. Several of his critics, including Judith Lichtman, met with the new civil rights director shortly after he joined HHS.

JUDITH LICHTMAN: He opened the meeting telling us his heartfelt story about knowing and understanding discrimination. And frankly, you know, stories will get you just so far.

KODJAK: Lichtman is a senior adviser to the National Partnership for Women and Families. She says Severino's actions since that meeting suggest he intends to protect people who want to discriminate against women who want birth control or abortions, which she points out are legal health care services.

LICHTMAN: I say that's pretty abhorrent.

KODJAK: Harper Jean Tobin, policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, was also at that meeting.

HARPER JEAN TOBIN: Director Severino presents himself as a civil rights lawyer. And what he has done as OCR director is turn the idea of civil rights on its head.

KODJAK: Traditional civil rights advocates, she says, have fought hard to make sure everyone can get the medical care they need. But Severino, she says, is instead fighting for the right of doctors to discriminate.

TOBIN: No one is forcing doctors to perform gender-affirming surgeries against their will. But what is happening every day is transgender patients are being denied every kind of medical care you can think of.

KODJAK: She says more than a third of transgender adults said in a survey that they had experienced health care discrimination in the last year. I reached out to several people who have worked with Severino and none would speak with me about him on the record. Those who spoke on background say he's a straight shooter who has a way of connecting with his clients. And they say they expect he'll apply the law fairly. Alison Kodjak, NPR News, Washington.

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