Washington D.C., Mar 28, 2017 / 03:53 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A new high-ranking official at the Department of Health and Human Services could give the agency a significant shift in how it treats religious freedom and life issues.
“Roger Severino, a seasoned champion of religious liberty and the pro-life cause, is just the right person to correct the course of HHS’s efforts at enforcing anti-discrimination principles in federal law,” said Matthew Franck, director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.
Franck spoke to CNA following Severino’s appointment as director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights.
Severino, a Harvard Law graduate, comes to HHS from the Heritage Foundation, where, according to his bio, he worked on religious freedom, marriage, and life issues and directed the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society in the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity.
He wrote about concerns over the Pentagon’s radical new gender policy, his disagreements with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hellerstedt abortion case, and religious freedom concerns in the Little Sisters of the Poor case at the Supreme Court, among other issues.
Severino brings with him a strong background in the field of civil rights law. Prior to his work at Heritage starting in 2015, he served as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division for seven years.
There, Severino litigated cases including HIV discrimination, racism, and housing discrimination.
One of the cases he worked on was United States v. Birdie Wren, where a 26 year-old mother – who was HIV-positive – and her four year-old son were denied consideration for an apartment lease in Chicago because of the woman’s medical condition.
The Justice Department successfully sought fines and damage payments for violations of the Fair Housing Act.
Before his time at the Justice Department, Severino was chief operations officer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
He will be needed at HHS because of the agency’s recent bias against pro-life groups, Franck argued:
“During the Obama administration, HHS became an aggressive discriminator against employers, insurers, and health care providers who only wanted to be left alone to act on their moral principles in favor of innocent human life, and on their religiously informed consciences against cooperation with evil.”
For example, when the state of California forced employers – including churches – to include abortion coverage in health plans, the HHS office for civil rights would not honor a challenge to that mandate from churches and religious freedom advocates.
Then-director Jocelyn Samuels said the mandate did not violate the Weldon Amendment, which bars federal funding of states and localities that discriminate against health providers who refuse to perform or assist abortions. Samuels said the entities bringing the challenge were not themselves health providers.
The U.S. bishops’ conference called the office’s decision “shocking.”
Franck predicted that Severino could help in such cases, and that his appointment “is very good news for the advancement of that office’s true mission.”