The Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Women's Law Center filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Thursday after they received no response to a January Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information about the new HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Conscience and Religious Freedom division.
The groups are seeking information about how the new division operates, how it allocates resources, whether its decision-making is influenced by outside groups, and why it was needed in the first place.
When the division was first announced, HHS explained that it “has been established to restore federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom.”
OCR Director Roger Severino cited the past under-enforcement of federal conscience protection statutes, such as the Church, Coats-Snowe, and Weldon Amendments.
“These protections have been under-enforced in the past and that has led to certain consequences,” he said at the time.
“If you under enforce a statute you should not be surprised if entities start testing it,” he commented, adding that, for these sorts of complaints, courts have said there’s no private right of action, meaning the only recourse is to OCR.
Members of Congress later cited specific instances of discrimination that pointed to the need for such a division.
However, the liberal groups are demanding a “full accounting” of the new division, claiming that the Trump administration has shown “hostility to reproductive health and rights.”
Maya Rupert, Senior Director, Policy and Managing Director with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said that “the Trump-Pence administration has repeatedly and unconstitutionally misused the concept of religious liberty to deny essential reproductive health services and embolden those who want to discriminate. Given this administration’s open hostility to reproductive health and rights, LGBTQ rights, and access to health care for everyone in this country, the public deserves a full accounting of the new division and how it has been using its enforcement powers.”
“This administration is prioritizing religious beliefs over patients’ access to care. It’s a perversion of HHS’ mission that cannot be ignored, “Gretchen Borchelt, NWLC Vice President for Reproductive Rights and Health said. “We’re filing this lawsuit to force the Trump-Pence administration to justify why it’s using resources to fund discrimination, rather than to protect patients.”