Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma said Wednesday that a leaked memo from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—spearheaded by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra—reveals the Biden administration’s plan to undo religious liberty protections and disregard Americans’ First Amendment rights.
The internal HHS memo, which describes a plan to turn back religious liberty protections implemented under the Trump and George W. Bush administrations, states: “The action will likely be well-received among civil rights advocates and litigators, as well as groups advocating for the separation of church and state. [But] groups who share the prior Administration’s broad view of the application of RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] or who will interpret this action as an indication that the Department is abdicating its responsibility for compliance with RFRA will likely issue strong negative reactions. This includes members of Congress who have been outspoken about OCR’s [Office for Civil Rights] conscience and religious freedom activities and who have repeatedly asked questions about changes to OCR’s organizational structure and legal authorities.”
In response, Lankford issued a statement: “The memo is correct, I am an outspoken advocate for religious liberty, and I have a very ‘negative reaction’ to this Administration ignoring the First Amendment and failing to protect Americans of conscience. Americans do not support President Biden and his team’s absolute lawlessness when it comes to upholding Americans’ Constitutional rights—including our right to freely live our faith.”
Lankford’s comments echoed those of former OCR Director Roger Severino, who told Fox News that Becerra’s actions contradicted commitments Becerra made to Congress before the Senate narrowly confirmed him along a 50-49 vote.
“I believe deeply in religious freedom,” Becerra said to Lankford during his confirmation hearing after being asked if he would uphold conscience protections. “And I will make sure that as secretary of HHS that you will know that I will not only respect the law when it comes to these issues of religious freedom, but I will enforce them as secretary of HHS within my department.”
And in another hearing, Becerra told Lankford that the work of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within OCR would not change.
“The HHS memo leaked today is the second leaked document out of this Administration in a week, which contradicts public statements from now two Cabinet secretaries, and illustrates the absolute disregard this Administration has for the American people,” Lankford said.
“We, as Americans, do not discriminate against people of faith,” the senator continued. “This move by Secretary Becerra shows he will not keep the commitment to protect religious freedom for every American that he made during his confirmation hearing.”
Becerra was California attorney general from 2017-2021 and previously served California in the U.S. House of Representatives. Known as a strident abortion-rights supporter, he argued in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals against the Little Sisters of the Poor in their quest for religious exemptions in covering abortion and contraception under Obamacare.