All of these laws are already on the books. But now, HHS is promising to enforce these statutes more aggressively. “For too long, governments big and small have treated conscience claims with hostility instead of protection,” said Severino in the press release. “But change is coming and it begins here and now.”
This is a direct shot at the Obama administration, which many religious conservatives—including Severino—saw as aggressively hostile toward religious-freedom rights. Organizations including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, where Severino formerly worked, waged war on a number of provisions in the Affordable Care Act that specifically had to do with abortion and contraception, leading to protracted court cases. Everett Piper, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, one of the institutions that sued HHS, explicitly rebuffed the previous administration in the press conference on Thursday. “I just want to say how good it is to be here thanking Health and Human Services and the Office of Civil Rights, rather than suing them,” he said, to laughs from the audience.
Over the past year, the Trump administration has taken steps to resolve the health-care-related religious-freedom conflicts that emerged under Obama. But Thursday’s announcement was its first move to take the offensive. Not only will those who object to abortion, contraception, and other controversial issues be free of government persecution, it seemed to suggest, they will actively be protected by the government.
HHS took steps to make sure the press conference included a range of voices—not just those of conservative Christians. Asma Uddin, the founder and editor in chief of Altmuslimah, a blog about gender in Islam, praised the new office, noting that “many Muslims, many members of my own community, need respect for modesty, particularly as patients.” Mitchell Rocklin, an Orthodox rabbi on the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, argued that American Jews should be supportive of this initiative. “I think it’s unfortunate that, too often, the issue of religion has become seen as a partisan issue,” he said. “And I hope, and I pray, that the establishment of this new division within HHS will help bring the debate back where it belongs: to one of consensus.”
But most of the speakers leaned into the political moment. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the Republican congressman from California, criticized the Obama administration’s implicit demand that religious people conform to secular norms. “What a difference one year makes,” he said. “If we don’t preserve the freedom of all people to live in accordance with their faith, our unity is lost.” And Senator James Lankford, the Republican from Oklahoma, argued that “there’s not a flood of new cases of religious intolerance. I think this is an opportunity for people to be able to say, ‘This has existed for a while, and I felt no one was listening.’ Now someone is listening.”