HHS Secretary Becerra Refuses to Protect Religious Liberty

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Health and Human Services Secretary and former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra recently dismissed a lawsuit against the University of Vermont Medical Center, which forced a nurse to help perform an abortion against her will. The Catholic nurse provided her documented objections to the hospital well before the procedure and informed her bosses that she could not assist in the abortion due to moral and religious convictions. The nurse’s right to refuse to participate is protected by the First Amendment and a federal law called the Church Amendments, which was passed unanimously by Congress in response to Roe v. Wade.

However, she was denied her rights and went through with the procedure, fearing termination. Becerra’s rejection of the lawsuit makes him complicit in forcing an individual to participate in the murder of an innocent life in the womb. He also allowed the hospital to break the law and keep policies in place that explicitly require workers to take part in procedures regardless of moral objections. Failing to uphold the human right to freely practice one’s religion is an abhorrent injustice, especially when it involves something as egregious and contentious as abortion.

Fortunately, some of our representatives took a stand for the rights of the nurse. In response, 80 Republican lawmakers, led by Senators Tom Cotton and James Lankford, signed a letter sent to Becerra and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, calling them out for dropping the case and failing to protect religious liberties and conscience rights. The lawmakers called the handling of this case a “miscarriage of justice” and blamed Becerra and Garland for rejecting their “commitment to enforce federal conscience laws for Americans of all religious beliefs and creeds.” The lawmakers also accused the two men of setting a precedent for U.S. employers and suggesting that the Biden administration will not enforce conscience laws. These representatives are absolutely right. Becerra and Garland must be held accountable for their failure to protect human rights and religious liberty. 

The Republican representatives did the right thing in fighting back against the decision, but their letter did not elicit any meaningful change or response. Becerra refused to address the accusations or questions that the lawmakers asked, including why he dropped the case. As Lankford noted, Becerra’s “nonresponse” was “unacceptable.” He simply claimed that HHS is committed to protecting religious freedom, but his actions clearly suggest otherwise.

Instead of upholding First Amendment rights, HHS is perpetuating work environments that are hostile toward people of faith under Becerra’s watch. If a nurse can’t refuse to take part in an abortion, we can reasonably expect that she can also be forced to do a number of other things she may be opposed to. This applies to a variety of fields and occupations where issues of conscience often arise.

Any one instance of a religious rights violation signals a threat to religious liberty throughout the country. We have seen far too many of these infringements in recent years, especially in healthcare. This case, however, is astonishing in its clarity, and exceptionally concerning given the gravity of taking an innocent life. It begs the question of whether the U.S. is on the precipice of abandoning religious freedom in healthcare altogether. Ultimately, the nurse in this case is a victim of an intolerable human rights violation, and we must use her story to prevent further infringements and hold our leaders accountable.