Published March 6, 2021
“This is a time to heal America,” then President-elect Joe Biden told the country during his acceptance speech in November. “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.”
Biden’s promise to unify the country makes his choice for his secretary of Health and Human Services, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, especially puzzling. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone more polarizing than Becerra. The Senate Finance Committee mirrored that divide last week, splitting down the middle in a 14-14 vote, which will allow either party to bring his nomination to the Senate floor.
At the time of a national pandemic, Biden chose a candidate to lead HHS with no background in public health or medicine (a point of serious concern raised during the committee nomination hearings by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., himself a physician, who noted that Becerra had displayed “no familiarity” with the kinds of programs for which HHS is responsible).
Rather, Becerra has made a name for himself primarily for his reputation for prosecutorial extremism, especially when it involves religious or religiously motivated people and organizations. Becerra initiated a lawsuit to reverse the exemption given to religious entities, most notably the Little Sisters of the Poor, to the Obamacare contraception and abortifacient drug mandate — even after the Supreme Court had sided with the Sisters. The Little Sisters of the Poor are a Catholic order of nuns who operate retirement homes for the indigent elderly throughout the world, including two homes in the Chicago area. Becerra’s harassment of the Sisters — threatening them with steep fines if they refused to comply — was not popular with a majority of Americans; a Marist Poll indicated that by a 20-point margin, Americans thought the government’s actions against the nuns was unfair.
Becerra also targeted California’s pregnancy resource centers, charities that provide expectant mothers with alternatives to abortion. Run almost exclusively by Christian and Catholic volunteers, the centers offer services such as medical care, parenting classes and housing to pregnant women who might otherwise feel pressured to choose abortion. Becerra attempted to undermine the work of the centers by ordering them to post information at their entryways about California’s free abortion coverage — including referral information to abortion providers.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Becerra and in favor of the centers. Tellingly, the most stinging criticism of Becerra’s attempts to force the pregnancy centers to advertise for abortion services came from the concurrence of moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who pointedly noted how history has proven “how relentless authoritarian regimes are in their attempts to stifle free speech.”
For many active Christians and Catholics, and others of goodwill who respect the free exercise of religion and religious beliefs, Becerra’s candidacy indicates that Biden’s aspiration to unify a divided country was simply empty rhetoric. Becerra’s “comply or be canceled” mindset, along with his record of animosity toward people of faith, is hardly the type of appointment that will unify, much less “heal America.”
In a recent address to the Federalist Society, Justice Samuel Alito sounded an alarm: On issues of religious freedom, he warned, things may get much worse before they get better. “It pains me to say this,” Alito said, “but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.” If Becerra is confirmed by the Senate, that “disfavoring” may come about more swiftly, and severely, than Alito predicted.
Mary Hallan FioRito is an attorney and the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She writes from Chicago.