The future under President Trump, thanks to the administration’s push for religious liberty and expression, will not resemble the secular one envisioned by John Lennon in his song “Imagine,” one of the government’s top civil rights lawyers said Tuesday.
“What if we took John Lennon’s thought experiment seriously?” asked Roger Severino, director for the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, at a religious liberty discussion at The Heritage Foundation in Washington. “What if there were no religion, what would America be like? Would it be a better place? A more humane place? Or would it be something different than the founders imagined America to be?”
Mr. Severino said under the Trump administration, he can “imagine a world in the future that is very different than John Lennon’s.” It’s also a world very different from the Obama administration’s.
The Obama administration averaged 1.25 violation of conscience complaints per year at HHS. Mr. Severino’s office processed 343 complaints charging a violation of conscience last fiscal year, he said.
The goal now, he said, is to ensure that religious liberty protections do not disappear under the next administration, whether that be one or five years from now.
“It’s a matter of institutionalizing these protections,” said Mr. Severino, invoking Manifest Destiny. “Look, we may be heading to different directions on the edges, but on civil rights, we’re headed westward,” he said, acknowledging it could be “southwest” or “northwest.”
Two years after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a 20-point guidance on religious liberty for all executive branch employees, lawyers inside the Trump administration have taken rapid steps to ensure a person with deeply held religious beliefs is viewed with the same protected status as someone who is a racial minority or vulnerable to sex discrimination.
They have frequently invoked two religious liberty laws in state and federal cases. They have used the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, say, to protect an American Indian tribe’s use of private property to conduct ceremonial sweats, and 1993’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by President Clinton and introduced by then-Rep. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, to protect employers from federal mandates requiring them to provide birth control to employees based on the employer’s deeply held religious beliefs.
Liberal critics have pushed back against that expansion, suggesting religious convictions don’t necessarily equate conservative social values and pointing out that the LGBTQ community could be discriminated against in the name of religious liberty.
Jocelyn Samuels, director of UCLA’s Williams Institute, which researches public policy issues related to gender identity and sexual orientation, told The Atlantic in May that for many in the LGBTQ community, the ramping-up of violation-of-conscience exemptions is “likely to significantly reduce access to care.” She was Mr. Severino’s predecessor in the Obama administration.
Under the direction of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Reed M. Rubinstein, the department’s acting general counsel, said he has focused his office’s attention on religious liberty on college campuses as well as on third-party organizations that might deny vital accreditation to a college because, he hypothesized, a Christian school does not recognize same-sex marriages as valid under its faith-based mission.
“We’ve made it clear that the religious mission must be taken into account,” Mr. Rubinstein said.
He also said the department aims to introduce rules “very, very soon” that would allow for students who intern or work for religious organizations to be eligible for loan forgiveness programs.
“These are all technical changes, but they’ll all have a significant, cumulative effect that’ll advance religious liberty on college campuses,” Mr. Rubinstein said.
Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said his office has heard criticism from Congress and internally about a recent statement of interest filed by the Department of Justice to support the Indianapolis Roman Catholic Archdiocese in its firing of a gay teacher.
The former teacher at Cathedral High School is suing the diocese after Archbishop Charles Thompson pressured parochial schools to fire LGBTQ staff. Mr. Dreiband said the archdiocese merely wants control over the definition of a Catholic school.
“Sometimes our career attorneys and other staff may disagree with positions we’re taking on issues, but they’re professionals, and they do their duty,” Mr. Dreiband said.
The Trump administration’s departure from its predecessors has drawn criticism in the Democrat-led House, which performs regular oversight.
“I haven’t heard too much from Capitol Hill,” Mr. Dreiband joked before acknowledging a back-and-forth with one congressman who accused him of hostility toward civil rights at a hearing in March.
At the hearing, Democratic Reps. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania and Ed Case of Hawaii cited a report showing a 60% drop in civil rights prosecutions than under the Obama administration and 50% fewer processed cases than under President George W. Bush.
“I said such a statement was inaccurate and offensive,” Mr. Dreiband said Tuesday.
Mr. Rubenstein said education should be left to state and local governments in answering a question about California’s sexual health education program, in which teachers are encouraged to discuss family planning and sexual behavior frankly and in earlier grades.
“What goes on in local, K-12 schools with respect to curriculum is a local matter, and the federal government should not be involved,” Mr. Rubinstein said.
He noted that Mrs. Devos has championed school reform that would boost students’ access to scholarships that fund charter schools. “But at the end of the day, what goes on in California or New Jersey has to be first and foremost the responsibility of the parents who are sending their children there.”
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