Biden HHS Department rolls back Trump-era religious liberty protections

In November, the US Department of Health and Human Services announced it was making changes to revoke certain faith-based exemptions for child welfare agencies as part of a broader move to roll back Trump-era religious liberty protections.

The move by HHS also revoked the Office of Civil Rights’ (OCR) authority to enforce the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), stating that the Trump administration may have over-expanded OCR’s authority. Now, instead of going to the OCR, religious exemption requests will go to HHS sections for evaluation on a case-by-case basis.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, originally introduced in 1993 by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) is designed to ensure that religious freedom interests are protected and also prevent the federal government from substantially burdening a person’s God-given right to exercise their religion. 

President Trump issued several executive orders strengthening religious freedom protections during his time in office. The Department of Justice under President Trump issued amicus briefs supporting religious liberty in several Supreme Court cases, including Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which was heard by the Supreme Court just last month and centers around whether faith-based child welfare agencies can operate according to their faith and values..

Last month’s move by HHS not only revoked OCR authority to enforce the RFRA, but it also removed several waivers for faith-based organizations, including foster care agencies that do not work with same-sex couples. HHS said in a press release that the waivers, issued under the Trump administration to South Carolina, Texas and Michigan, were overly broad and “inappropriate.” 

Roger Severino, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who led the OCR during the Trump administration, said, “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. Without dedicated staff responsible for investigating religious freedom complaints, HHS will return to trampling people’s rights as before.”

He added that “HHS gratuitously stripped its Office for Civil Rights of the power to accept religious freedom complaints, leaving people with no other option but to sue when HHS inevitably tramples on their rights for lack of any internal checks.”

Religious freedom advocates are watching the changes at HHS closely, as are members of Congress. 

Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), called the HHS changes “troubling.”

“They not only prevent faith-based, child-welfare providers from serving vulnerable children in foster care, but they also reveal an animus towards people of faith. Instead of a government that serves the people, these actions show a government willing to target groups for their beliefs.”

Bishop Joseph Strickland, who oversees the Catholic Diocese of Tyler, TX, also had strong words for Biden and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “More brokenness from so-called Catholics. Maybe we should send him a Catechism,” Strickland told Fox News

“This action from HHS means that the Office for Civil Rights will no longer uphold the civil rights of religious Americans,” said Senator James Lankford, R-Oklahoma. “HHS clearly intends to go back to the days of light to no enforcement of the law that protect[s] the rights of people of any faith.”