Becerra Refuses to Address GOP Demands on Conscience Protections


Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra is refusing to address Republican allegations that he violated federal conscience protections and worked at the “behest of the abortion industry,” a letter obtained by The Daily Signal shows. 

“Xavier Becerra is too busy protecting hospitals that violate the rights of their nurses to give a straight answer,” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas told The Daily Signal on Monday. “The Biden administration needs to answer for why its health secretary is sabotaging federal conscience protection laws.”

In August, Republican lawmakers led by Cotton and Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma sent a letter to Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland. The letter—signed by 21 senators and 63 members of Congress—accused the two high-ranking Biden administration officials of dropping a lawsuit against a hospital, the University of Vermont Medical Center, that forced a nurse to assist in an elective abortion. 

The lawmakers also accused Becerra and Garland of signaling to U.S. employers that the Biden administration will not enforce federal conscience laws and “would rather allow consciences to be violated at the behest of the abortion lobby rather [than] enforce the law and protect religious liberty.”

“Your handling of this case is a profound miscarriage of justice and a rejection of your commitment to enforce federal conscience laws for Americans of all religious beliefs and creeds—and especially for doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals who object to abortion,” the Republicans wrote. 

Though the lawmakers asked Becerra to respond by Aug. 27, he waited until Nov. 4 to reply to Cotton. (His response was also sent to all the co-signers of the letter, HHS said in an email to Cotton’s office reviewed by The Daily Signal.)

The HHS secretary then reiterated that the lawsuit had been dismissed in July without addressing the allegations leveled against him and against the Biden administration. 

Becerra also did not address any of the questions that the Republicans had demanded answers to, including questions about how and why HHS and the Justice Department dropped the lawsuit. 

“Thank you again for your letter,” Becerra wrote to Cotton. “HHS remains committed to the enforcement of all its legal authorities, including statutes which protect the exercise of conscience and religious freedom, and we appreciate having the benefit of your views on this matter.” 

HHS and Becerra did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Daily Signal. 

Lankford said in a statement to The Daily Signal that Becerra’s “nonresponse” was “unacceptable.”

“Unfortunately, it is not surprising, based on the secretary’s history of dodging congressional inquiries,” the Oklahoma lawmaker said. “Secretary Becerra clearly would rather promote abortion and force individuals to participate in the taking of the life of children in the womb, rather than enforce the law that protects people of conscience.”

The Trump Administration Lawsuit

Under then-President Donald Trump’s administration in August 2019, HHS’ Office of Civil Rights issued a notice of violation against the University of Vermont Medical Center over a nurse who said she was forced to assist with an abortion against her consicence and documented objections. 

Republicans told Becerra in August that the hospital not only violated her conscience rights, but also “kept policies in place that explicitly required members with conscience objections to participate in procedures to ‘ensure that patient care is not negatively impacted.’” 

The Office of Civil Rights found that that nurse was not the only one who the hospital had treated in this manner: The hospital had scheduled 10 nurses with documented conscience objections to assist with approximately 20 abortions, the August letter to Becerra said. 

“[The University of Vermont Medical Center] easily could have accommodated objections without any disturbance to the services it provided, as it had for other non-religious and non-abortion-related objections,” the Republicans said, “but instead continued to perpetuate a work environment that was hostile toward people of faith both in policy and practice.”

The hospital—which the Republicans said has received grant funding from HHS since 1998—refused to comply with “federal law and its contractual obligations as a federal grant recipient,” the letter said, prompting Trump’s Justice Department to sue the hospital in December 2020. 

Under the Biden administration and Becerra’s and Garland’s leadership, HHS not only revoked its notice of violation and withdrew the referral to the Justice Department, but also requested that Justice dismiss the lawsuit, the letter said. 

The lawmakers told Becerra in August: 

Instead of supporting proposed legislation like the Conscience Protection Act to allow victims of discrimination to have their day in court, by reportedly unraveling the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within HHS [Office of Civil Rights] and dropping this lawsuit, you have spent your time blocking any possible legal remedy for victims of discrimination and making it harder for any further discrimination claims to be filed, investigated, and remedied.

In a pluralistic society, laws that allow people to live by their conscience should not even be necessary. Nevertheless, due to the coercive actions of employers like [the University of Vermont Medical Center] and the hostility toward religious and moral convictions shown by your agencies in this case, the importance of these laws is plainly demonstrated.

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