Published September 17, 2021
It has been over six months since President Biden’s inauguration, but he has yet to name a Director of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — perhaps the most important federal office you might not have heard of. OCR is responsible for ensuring every program administered or funded by the America’s largest federal agency by budget complies with all applicable civil rights and conscience and religious freedom laws. If that weren’t a big enough task, it also enforces our nation’s health information privacy laws, including HIPAA. OCR is charged with enforcing these laws according to their terms and free from undue political influence, but I fear the office which I led for four years under the Trump administration has lost its way and is being politicized beyond all recognition under the new regime.
I founded a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at OCR to make sure our conscience laws were enforced just like every other civil right. Indeed, the Conscience Division found Xavier Becerra, the current HHS Secretary, in violation of federal conscience laws twice while he was California attorney general — including once for forcing an order of nuns to buy abortion coverage. Because federal law prohibits HHS from funding states that discriminate against people who won’t perform, cover, or pay for abortions, Becerra’s abortion radicalism cost his state $200 million in Medicaid funds. This summer, however, OCR quietly vacated the violation findings against California and HHS restored the disallowed funds. Around the same time, OCR revoked formal violation findings against the University of Vermont Medical Center which had forced a nurse to assist in an abortion over her religious objections, in gross violation of law. Political appointees overruled the work of dedicated career professionals who conducted these investigations, pored over hundreds of documents, investigated witnesses, and meticulously built these cases over years. Now the violators have gotten full pardons because political appointees at HHS are doing favors for abortion special interests. This is what fully politicized law enforcement looks like.
Although Becerra is a walking conflict of interest on conscience issues, he is likely not making the day-to-day policy decisions at OCR. This person is, though:
The person explicitly equating the Conscience Division with supposed rape apologists (though DeVos is not one) is Laura Durso, OCR chief of staff and political appointee. Here’s another example of temperate, dispassionate neutrality from Durso:
In a 2018 recorded interview, she called formation of the Conscience Division “insulting,” said “they don’t care about the vulnerable,” and alleged it is part of a conspiracy to impose Christian beliefs on the nation.
It gets worse. In the same interview she enthusiastically agreed with the host — saying “yeah” “yeah” “yeah” — when he slandered the Division as “an office that makes people feel like crap” whose work “is the most immoral thing that you can think of.” Not exactly a great way to win friends among people she now supervises. But winning friends was never the point. Rather, she was brought in to demoralize if not disband an office that has been effectively enforcing conscience protection laws passed by the people’s representatives in Congress.
During a budget hearing on June 16th of this year, Representative Jim Banks asked Becerra whether he would “disavow any of [Durso’s] outrageous statements and attacks on career professionals of the Division” and if he would “commit to removing a biased ideologue like Ms. Durso from any decision making related to the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.” Becerra dodged and claimed he had “never seen” or “heard” of the statements, but promised he would “certainly take a look” at them.
Becerra has had months to see, hear, and consider Durso’s disgraceful statements, yet continues to empower her ongoing wrecking project. We can certainly hope the next OCR Director will end the rampant politicization of a once proud office, but until the HHS Inspector General’s Office or Congress opens up an investigation, as they should, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Roger Severino is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he heads the HHS Accountability Project.