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Roger Severino Discusses The HHS Division Of Conscience And Religious Freedom


Now we're going to follow-up with someone we just heard, Roger Severino. He's the director of the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services, and his office is charged with investigating complaints made by health care workers under this new initiative. Welcome to the program.

ROGER SEVERINO: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: Just explain why the Trump administration has taken this step.

SEVERINO: Well, it comes down to the president's May 4, 2017, executive order, which was a turning point. He said that we're going to vigorously enforce federal law protecting religious freedom. He said, we're a nation of tolerance, and we'll not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore. And this is just a natural outgrowth of that. We have a lot of statutes and laws on the books that protect conscience. They protect religious freedom. They have not been enforced as they deserve to be enforced, and this is a crucial civil right that is now getting the attention that has been long overdue.

MCEVERS: When you talk about tolerance, I have to ask this question. I mean, could this move mean that a woman who wants a procedure like an abortion or someone who is transgender would be denied health care?

SEVERINO: Well, the first thing to think about is that these laws are anti-discrimination laws. They ban discrimination against persons who exercise their conscience in the health care field. It actually enhances diversity to have people from all walks of life with different views on controversial questions able to practice medicine. And these laws...

MCEVERS: But I think my question is about - yeah, I think my question's about the consequences of that move though, right? The consequences of that move is that someone could be denied a health care procedure that they might want.

SEVERINO: Well, it depends what you're talking about. I think denial is a very strong word. What these (unintelligible) say is that the government itself cannot discriminate in its federal funding against providers who simply want to serve the people they serve according to their religious beliefs. If you do - or think about the opposite. If you were to ban people from practicing medicine, you'd have religious hospitals excluded from the public square because they want to follow their faith in helping the poor, the sick and the elderly and retain the religious identity without violating their conscience in doing so.

And America has reached a point where people understand that you should not be forcing others to perform abortions against their will. After Roe v. Wade, regardless of what people think about the legality of abortion, most people think that you shouldn't be forcing other people to perform abortions, pay for them, cover, refer for them, and that's enshrined in our laws. And that's what this is about.

This is about enforcing the laws that have been ignored for too long, that have been passed by Congress year after year with bipartisan support. And multiple presidents have signed these laws. And that's what this is all about - going back to protecting are fundamental principles of conscience and religious freedom.

MCEVERS: Will the civil rights division give equal weight to patients who feel like they have experienced discrimination as a result?

SEVERINO: Absolutely. There is no contradiction between respecting conscience and protecting against discrimination against people of faith and conscience and respecting all of the other civil rights. They're all civil rights. This is a package of civil rights. They come together. It's about freedom for everybody. And my office enforces civil rights laws regarding sex, discrimination, age, disability, race, national origin and the whole spectrum. And they will be fully enforced.

MCEVERS: I guess one person's conscience - right? - can be somebody else's feeling of being singled out, being considered as part of a group that's not going to get something that they feel like they deserve. That's the balancing act here, no?

SEVERINO: Well, I think people understand intuitively with the First Amendment. If somebody takes an unpopular view, the government should not come in and say, you cannot speak because we do not like your views - same thing in the health care space. The government should not be saying, you cannot have a job; you cannot be a nurse because of your views on abortion. This is about tolerance on all sides.

MCEVERS: Roger Severino is director of the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services. Thank you for your time.

SEVERINO: You're very welcome Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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