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Analysis: What a Becerra HHS could mean for Catholics

By Matt Hadro for CNA

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks during an Aug. 2, 2018, media conference in Los Angeles. (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 9, 2020 / 03:30 pm (CNA).- On Monday, President-elect Joe Biden tapped California attorney general Xavier Becerra to head the Department of Health and Human Services. If appointed, Becerra will lead an agency that has been at the epicenter of the “culture wars” in the U.S.—and many Catholic groups will now be bracing for those fights to intensify.

Becerra’s record in California shows that he, perhaps more than any other state attorney general, has been willing to wield the power of the state to enforce pro-abortion policies against religious and pro-life groups.

And if appointed as Health Secretary, he would have authority to craft far-reaching policy across a number of controversial “culture war” issues.

Among the many offices at HHS are ones that oversee Medicare and Medicaid, children and families, global health affairs, civil rights in health care, substance abuse, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

HHS has authority over a broad range of concerns—federally-funded adoption agencies, regulation of the abortion pill, refugee resettlement, anti-human trafficking efforts, global health, and family planning, to name a few.

Health policy also intersects with the work of the Catholic Church, which historically has had a large and heavy footprint on U.S. health care. Perhaps in no other area, aside from education, does the Church work more with the broader society.

An estimated one in six hospital beds in the U.S. is in a Catholic hospital, according to the ACLU. Catholics provide adoption and foster care services around the country, and help resettle refugee families. They operate shelters for human trafficking survivors. Catholic doctors, nurses, and foster mothers may work anywhere in the healthcare system, not just at Catholic institutions.

Furthermore, many Catholic employers offer health coverage to their employees—another area of HHS oversight in the wake of the Affordable Care Act.

It is also true that in health care, the “culture war” battles are raging the hardest. A number of groups—chief among them the ACLU—have for years been pushing for contraceptives, abortions, same-sex marriages, and gender-transition procedures to become the norm in health care and family life, whether or not religious organizations agree.

An administration which is willing to aggressively back abortion, marriage redefinition, and gender ideology could pick a lot of fights with Catholic organizations—and that is exactly what happened under the Obama administration.

The HHS crafted the contraceptive mandate, which forced many Catholic employers—including the Little Sisters of the Poor—into court. Even after the sisters were granted a broader conscience and religious freedom exemption, it was challenged by several state attorneys general, including Becerra.

In 2016, the agency required doctors to perform gender-transition surgeries upon the referral of a mental health professional, whether or not doctors agreed with the procedure. In addition, many insurance companies and employers were required to cover the procedure.

The HHS also has some authority over how taxpayer dollars appropriated by Congress can be spent, by making funds to health providers or other grantees conditional upon certain mandates. And the Obama-era HHS began making controversial requirements of grant recipients—requirements that Catholic organizations said they could not obey in conscience.

HHS required adoption and foster care agencies to work with same-sex couples in order to receive federal funding.

In 2011, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) saw its anti-trafficking grant application denied by HHS because it would not refer trafficking victims for abortions or contraceptives. Agency leadership reportedly overruled other staffers who said the USCCB had superior qualifications to those of the other grant applicants.

HHS also helps resolve health care-related discrimination complaints through its Office of Civil Rights (OCR). This office may often be involved HIPAA-related cases, defending the privacy of patients’ medical records, or in ensuring access to health care for disabled persons with communication issues.

However, OCR can also be involved in other discrimination complaints regarding religious freedom or gender identity.

In 2015 the Obama-era OCR settled a dispute where an individual identifying as a transgender female had requested not to share a room with a male at a Brooklyn hospital. The administration sided with the transgender female.

Beginning in 2017, however, the Trump administration began moving in the opposite direction in the “culture wars,” prioritizing conscience protections, religious freedom, and curbing funding of groups promoting abortion.

Although the administration clashed repeatedly with the U.S. bishops on immigration and refugee resettlement, it often offered much-desired relief for religious groups in health care.

The administration crafted conscience protections for health care workers, granted relief to the Little Sisters of the Poor from the contraceptive mandate, declared “there is no international right to abortion” at the United Nations General Assembly, and made religious and conscience exemptions for federal grantees in adoption and health care.

The Trump HHS blocked family planning grants from groups that refer for abortions, or are co-located with abortion clinics. As a result, Planned Parenthood backed out of the program and forfeited an estimated $60 million annually in grants rather than comply with the new regulations.

In 2018, the administration established a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the HHS OCR. The office said it experienced a surge in religious freedom-related discrimination complaints following the move.

Under head Roger Severino, the HHS OCR has been involved in settling several religious disputes in the last two years involving access of patients to clergy during the pandemic, and a Vermont hospital that allegedly forced a nurse to participate in an abortion against her conscientious beliefs.

HHS was at the center of an immigration battle in 2017, when the ACLU sued the administration for an undocumented teenage immigrant not being able to obtain an abortion while at a federally-operated shelter.

The policy of ORR—an office at HHS—said that government shelters should not be compelled to transport women to have abortions. After three years of litigation, however, the administration recently changed the policy and said ORR providers would not obstruct abortions for “unaccompanied alien children.”

The HHS also enforces existing federal protections for persons and organizations that object to providing abortions.

When California in 2014 forced employers to cover abortions in their health plans, a number of religious organizations appealed to the HHS OCR; the state’s act violated the Weldon Amendment, the pro-life groups said.

The Obama administration at the time said that California had not violated the Weldon Amendment in forcing employers to cover abortions. However, in 2020 the HHS OCR sent California a notice of violation over the requirement. Becerra, acting as attorney general of California, refused to comply with the HHS notice.

These are just a number of areas where the HHS can square off against—or work with—religious and pro-life groups. With the possible confirmation of Becerra, many Catholic institutions will be counting up the myriad of Obama-era “culture war” fights that could reignite—and burn hotter than ever before.

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  1. Cardinal Tobin, a Biden fan and chair of the USCCB committee on religious liberty, gets his wish:, an administration that will push abortion, gender ideology and limits on Catholic speech. Thanks, Cardinal Tobin, you got your “man of character.” Now you have the chance to shut up all those troublesome single-issue pro-lifers and faithful Catholics. Not to worry, Joe, the pope has your back.

    It’s shameful what our “shepherds” have become.

    • Exactly. The whole group of secular bishops got what they wanted. Now they can continue to roll over to get their bellies rubbed. “Collaborateurs” right out of the N azi playbook. May the Holy Trinity have mercy upon their souls. Terrified of the answer but wonder how many of our shepherds voted for Biden.

  2. We must soberly and courageously face the harsh “clenched fist” of aggression that now threatens to negate the Bill of Rights, reserving these rights to those who are in agreement with those holding power. The heavy hand of force! Will we find the strength to oppose this negation of American citizenship – its responsibilities and its privileges – or not?

  3. Culture War is in reality an aphorism for internecine religious warfare aimed at orthodox Catholicism. Warfare waged within the ranks. If any Catholic believes that Biden’s appointment of Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services merely relates to the objectives of the ACLU and secular humanists you’re mistaken. The dilemma is that the target for ending unwanted life, infants in the womb, inevitably the handicapped, the aged, this assault on all that is precious to men of faith is that the most dangerous perpetrators are the highest ranked clergy within the Church. From the Pontiff down the ranks to progressives Cardinal Kevin Farrell camerlengo, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, Cardinals Walter Kasper, Cupich, Tobin down the list to, not less influential consigliere Antonio Spadaro SJ. If someone in a position of executive authority within the State with power to initiate policy that affects the lives of millions, in particular the life or death of infants in the womb, and vows to enforce a no restriction policy, who has vowed to mandate the Little Sisters of the Poor and all Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives and abortifacients, and who nevertheless calls himself a faithful Catholic whose policies on abortion, homosexuality are in accord with the Roman Pontiff [on this Joe Biden is unfortunately correct], and who has convinced himself that evil is a good, and receives approbation from the USCCB, kudos from the Vatican, from Fr Spadaro editor in chief of the Vatican La Civiltà Cattolica what that man Biden believes is not simply supported by the named but in effect held by them.

  4. I am disgusted by the fact that so many Catholics support Biden and his ilk. It’s just rubbing salt in our wounds when the Bishops make statements showing support for him too, and a slap in the face for those who work to dismantle abortion, gay “marriage,” etc.

    It used to be we all had the same goals, and just prefered differing paths to reach them. Now, there are diametrically opposing goals. It’s an unstainable dichotomy.

    Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, pray for us.

    • God allows us to have free will to choose good or evil. Yet we must trust that He still “works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

  5. Well said, Fr Morello.
    These bastards got what they wanted. HHS Sec will eat the USCCB for lunch. But that will not change the USCCB, as it will continue to beg for crumbs from Caesar’s table. Bet on it.

  6. Wolves in sheep clothing. They have been deceiving people for centuries. It’s VERY important that lay people read the Scriptures. God’s word will reveal the hypocrisy of the Catholic hierarchy. True church discipline and leadership would confront Biden, Pelosi and other card carrying catholics and excommunicate them in the hopes they repent and speak out against murdering babies. True repentance would also lead them to a whole host of other atrocities and lies they are suppressing.

  7. The church should have come out strong and clear against Biden and his policies. Now it is too late. Where was the Church Militant before election time?

  8. Fake news. No one is PRO ABORTION. 350,000 coronavirus deaths under an incompetent and corrupt trump admin on the other hand is hardly pro-life. #hypocrites

    • Melanie,
      One needn’t be in favor of feticide to enable that sort of violence to continue.We only have to practice willful blindness.

      Sadly, there are some who believe the poor are better off without children and could be described as “pro abortion “. Eugenics has always played a role in this issue.
      God bless you and I hope you will continue to visit this site.

    • It’s not fake news (btw, Trump coined that phrase, so learn what it actually means), these are the facts and you just don’t want to be confused by them because your mind’s already made up.

      Trump didn’t cause covid deaths anymore than Obama caused swine flu deaths.


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