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WASHINGTON, D.C., January 18, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – President Donald Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) established today a new division within HHS’s civil rights office to enforce conscience protection and religious freedom for healthcare workers.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the creation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) this morning.

The new division will enforce “laws and regulations that protect conscience and prohibit coercion on issues such as abortion and assisted suicide” and others in HHS-funded or conducted programs,” according to the OCR website. It will also enforce statutes protecting “the free exercise of religion and prohibit discrimination” in HHS programs. 

The new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division signals an important change for the OCR, which also oversees enforcement of laws concerning security and privacy of people’s health information. It brings back to the forefront enforcement of conscience and religious liberty laws in the healthcare field, an about-face from the stance of the Obama Administration.

“With the creation of this new division, you do not need to shed your moral convictions to be part of the public square,” the Director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS, Roger Severino, said Thursday morning during the HHS announcement.

Religious liberty advocates and pro-life groups welcomed the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division of the OCR, also noting its turnaround from Obama-era policy, illustrated by among other things Obama’s February 2011 repeal of conscience protection regulations that had been enacted by President George W. Bush.

“We thank President Trump for standing up in bold defense of conscience rights,” Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. “This Administration realizes that abortion is a highly controversial, brutal act against unborn children and their mothers and affirms the right of all Americans not to be forced to participate in abortion.

“This is a welcome change from the Obama administration’s stubborn refusal to enforce federal laws that prohibit discrimination against health care entities,” Dannenfelser added.

Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver called HHS’s establishment of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in its OCR “an historic and positive step by the Trump administration to protect religious freedom and the rights of conscience.”

“The Department of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration was hostile to conscience and religious freedom rights,” Staver said. “Today's announcement is refreshing and exciting.”

“Religious freedom is our first freedom and I welcome the news that HHS is committed to protecting our precious freedom,” continued Staver. “The Trump administration is to be commended for making this 180-degree turn from the past administration which used the federal government to violate religious freedom and conscience rather than protecting them.” 

“This move sends a strong message that there must be a commitment to protecting religious freedom,” he added.

Students for Life of America (SFLA) President Kristan Hawkins commended the Trump Administration for creating the new HHS civil right Division.

“Those who would force others to end pre-born life or face severe consequences should face civil rights penalties,” Hawkins said. “The Obama Administration moved from ‘choice’ to coercion in broadly redefining contraception to include things like ella that can end pre-born life and then requiring compliance with the anti-life proposals or face the force of law.”

“As a nation, we rely on the healing hearts of medical professionals who pledge to ‘do no harm,’” added Hawkins. “No one trained to help others should be forced to end life or face career-ending punishments.”

Severino, told reporters on a press call Wednesday night that conscience protections had been under-enforced in the past, resulting in a testing of the boundaries of laws, and thus a marked increase in complaints related conscience protections made to the OCR.

From 2008 to 2016, just 10 complaints of conscience or religious liberty violations were submitted to the OCR, he said. That number rose to 34 from the time of the 2016 election to mid-January 2018.

The new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division was established to ensure the federal government is “vigorously enforcing” all of the religious liberty and conscience protection laws already on the books, Severino said. The Division was also created to send a message to government entities that the laws must be respected, he said, and to guarantee justice for victims of wrongful discrimination and coercion.

The fact the OCR enforced conscience protection had been the “best-kept secret” before, said Severino, “So now, we are back in business.”

Severino said the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division was a “giant step forward” in keeping the promise President Trump had made in signing his religious freedom executive order last May.

Trump signed the “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” executive order with the pledge to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.”

Religious liberty advocates and others said the Free Speech and Religious Liberty order  did not go far enough, some criticizing its language for being weak or too general.

The executive order did not quell concerns held by some over whether Trump would deliver on his campaign promise to be strong in his defense of religious liberty.

The religious liberty executive order also directed federal agencies such as HHS to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.” The controversial HHS Mandate requires religious employers such as the Little Sisters of the Poor to be party to procuring birth control for their employees.

The executive order also instructed the Department of Justice to issue guidance for government agencies on existing law. The DOJ did so last October with its “Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty” guidance, which included ensuring that the “government may not target religious individuals or entities through discriminatory enforcement of neutral, generally applicable laws.”

The OCR already has enforcement authority over established federal conscience protection statutes related to abortion or sterilization, according to an HHS statement.

These include the Church, Coats-Snowe, and Weldon Amendments, which collectively address conscience issues for doctors, faith-based hospitals, health care providers, medical training programs and medical students. 

The OCR also oversees enforcement of Section 1553 of the Affordable Care Act (on assisted suicide), and certain federal nondiscrimination laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion in various HHS programs. 

Complaints of violation of religious liberty and conscience can be filed to the OCR here.