U.S.

The Biden-Becerra Budget: Equity Is In, Religious Freedom Is Out

Xavier Becerra at his Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 24, 2021 (Greg Nash/Reuters)
What we can expect from America's first woke budget.

On the Friday before Memorial Day, President Biden quietly released his budget for the fiscal year 2022,  clearly hoping people’s attention would be anywhere but on his plans for America. I am not here referring to the billions upon billions of wasteful spending he is proposing, but to something more pernicious — the rise of the “woke” budget and how it seeks to transform this country.

A word search of the president’s 33-page budget narrative reveals his administration’s priorities. It mentions “equity” and its variations 49 times, while a variant of the now passé term “equality” is mentioned just once, and probably by accident. Gobs of other intersectional buzzwords are layered throughout, with women/gender, race/racial, people of color, minority, black, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Native American, sexual orientation, and transgender/gender identity appearing a whopping 90 times combined.

Conspicuously missing from Biden’s equity list, however, is any mention of conscience or religious liberty. By contrast, the Trump administration’s budgets put these issues front and center, as they should be. (See Amend. I, U.S. Const.).

As director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under President Trump, I founded the nation’s first Conscience and Religious Freedom Division to ensure these fundamental rights would never again be treated as second-class rights. Here is a sampling of the division’s accomplishments that are now at risk:

  • Securing a $200 million disallowance of Medicaid funds from California, the first such disallowance in history, after the state required an order of nuns to purchase abortion insurance. (Yes, nuns.)
  • Holding California in violation of the Weldon Amendment for attempting to force pro-life pregnancy-resource centers — which give pregnant mothers life-affirming options — to refer for state-funded abortions.
  • Issuing landmark regulations to provide proper enforcement tools for approximately two dozen conscience-protection statutes in existence for decades but underenforced.
  • Holding the University of Vermont Medical Center in violation of the Church Amendments for forcing a nurse to assist in an abortion after being informed well ahead of time that the nurse could not participate because of moral and religious objections to abortion.
  • Assuring safe access to clergy in hospitals during COVID-19 so that patients would no longer die alone.
  • Guaranteeing access to safe importation of childhood vaccines that have not been derived with the use of aborted fetal cell lines for people who object to abortion on religious grounds.

I say these accomplishments are at risk for good reasons. Prime among them is the fact that the most notorious violator of conscience laws in recent years, Xavier Becerra, is now the secretary of HHS. In fact, as attorney general of California, Becerra was the guilty party in the first two enforcement actions mentioned above. Even Justice Kennedy called him out in NIFLA v. Becerra for “compel[ling] individuals to contradict their most deeply held beliefs” on abortion like a “relentless authoritarian regime[].” Relentless, indeed. This authoritarian streak is all the scarier now that Becerra, with Biden’s full support, is the regime pushing a radically coercive pro-abortion agenda.

Becerra’s first budget for HHS has erased nearly all mention of conscience and religious freedom enforcement, exposing Becerra’s contrary assurances about enforcement at his confirmation hearing as misrepresentations at best. The budget about-face prompted Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, a smart questioner if ever there was one, to ask at yesterday’s budget hearing point-blank: “It seems like you are eliminating the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. Is that true?” Becerra, clearly uncomfortable answering, responded by assuring us that the “Office for Civil Rights,” of which the division is a part, will continue to “be a solid organization” in protecting religious-conscience rights. Smelling a dodge, Lankford followed up two more times, specifically asking about the future of the division, but the most Becerra would say was “the work will not change . . . nothing there changes.”

Congressional oversight will soon enough determine if he was lying. But for now, we certainly know what Becerra wants to do, but he couldn’t bring himself to go on the record and just say it. Perhaps he realizes the public outrage it would cause among people of good will who don’t want to be forced to pay for other people’s abortions nor see anyone forced to assist in the grisly procedure. Perhaps he knows he might lose Congress to a pro-life majority in less than two years and that they would control his budget. Perhaps he realizes how Nixonian it would look to shut down a law-enforcement unit that held him accountable by name. Perhaps.

According to the White House, Becerra alone will determine the future of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division and at the very least, Congress and the HHS Inspector General need to investigate this walking conflict of interest. If the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division is cut in the coming days or months, it will be sad but temporary because such a decision would not be based on legitimate concerns. Rather, it would be about Becerra pushing extreme ideology, avoiding personal responsibility, and settling scores — just what you would expect from America’s first woke budget. Let’s pray Becerra, and our president, are better than that.

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