Former Director of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Roger Severino spoke at NC Family’s Charlotte and Winston-Salem Dinners this fall.
Severino currently serves as senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and he spoke at both dinners about his work at HHS in the Trump Administration. To watch the full video of Severino’s address, visit the 2021 Winston-Salem Dinner Event page.
This week on Family Policy Matters, we are featuring Part 2 of an excerpt from Severino’s address in Charlotte on October 5, 2021. Listen to Part 1 here!
ROGER SEVERINO: So I do encourage all of you to become aware of the regulatory process. At EPPC, I have the HHS Accountability Project that I’m the director of, and we are mobilizing folks to get involved. So follow us. Follow me on Twitter. Follow what we do to be informed so you can submit your comments, every single one counts. The Left is exceedingly good at this. That’s one of the things I learned being in the government: the Left knows the levers of government. They know every trick in the book of how to move things through and how to cause trouble for people who are trying to do the right thing, how to slow things down. All of those things matter. All of those things matter.
Now, one of the bright spots? We still have the Supreme Court and a conservative majority, thank God. That was Trump’s biggest legacy by far. He put pro-life, pro-religious freedom, originalist judges on the court, and I expect good things to come out of that. However, we can’t rely on the Supreme Court. So much of our daily life is governed by what the federal government does through the agencies. So get involved there.
Where do I see things going? Well, I think the scariest words in the English language now are “public health emergency.” Those three words…so much nefarious action could come of that, nd I think COVID is testing the nature of our way of life. Now, I don’t mean simply the horrible health consequences of the hundreds of thousands of deaths. We could survive that as a country; we survived worse. It’s what’s going to happen to our institutions; how we deal with each other; and more importantly, how our government deals with us.
Early on in the outbreak—this was March 2020, and I had seen all the internal figures of how bad it was going to be when I was at HHS. I was there when the guidance was being rolled out on houses of worship and what the restrictions be put in place, et cetera. And my local church, like every single other one, closed their doors for parishioners. It was such a shock, but I had never missed Sunday mass and my family had never missed it. So we showed up and were out in the parking lot and we piped in the liturgy, and we were in violation of the law because in Virginia—at the time—they had limits even on outdoor worship services. And I thought, “Well, what’s more important? This is my opportunity to impart an important lesson to my children as to what really matters.” And if I were to be fined or arrested, so be it. I would volunteer to be the first. It’d be all over the news, it would be great. It’d bring attention to the issue that there are some things that are worth standing up to the government for, and this was absolutely one of them. So I didn’t get arrested, but we continued in defiance of the law until they started relaxing some of the restrictions, but that wasn’t an uncommon story. Unfortunately, most houses of worship actually gave in. Now of course you have to render under Caesar what is Caesar’s, but you have to render under God, what is God’s. And the Church is God’s.
So there were a few brave houses of worship that did stand up. When I was at HHS, I had massive debates over what these strictures were going to be. If you look at what actually came out at first, CDC issued guidance on whether or not you can have communion in a chalice, or whether or not you could pass around hymnals, or whether you could chant or sing and praise God with your own voice. They reversed it because a couple of us fought back and we said, “This is a violation of what we stand for as a country. There are some things more important than health and it’s our religious liberty.” And that was an incredible fight, but we did win. So if you look at the guidance that came out, religious organizations were treated differently and there were some suggestions on what you can do, but nothing in the framing of a mandate. However, at the state level, governors still did it anyway. And those churches that did stand up won at the Supreme court; they actually won.
So what is next with COVID? If we were willing to give up on being able to worship, what is next? Now, of course, we have the vaccination mandates coming down, all in the name of public health emergency. One of the cases being cited is Jacobson v. Massachusetts from , saying that in a smallpox outbreak in Massachusetts, the state was able to impose a vaccine mandate because of the circumstances at the time. Now that case has not really been cited much; it was about a local smallpox outbreak, which is a very different sort of disease. And it didn’t involve the federal power. But that case was cited in the famous other case in 1927, where the question was, does the government have the power to forcibly sterilized people that are deemed unfit genetically? The case was Buck v. Bell. And the Supreme Court looked at it and said, “In the name of health, we should do this. We looked at the Jacobson case. If you could do it for a vaccine, of course you could do it to preserve the stock of the American people.” And this is a quote from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He said, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” And we as a nation have been living that down ever since, all the name of health.
What else came out of pursuing public health? Well, abortion legalization started through the notion that abortion was therapeutic—it’s good for a woman’s health. If you read Roe v. Wade and its companion case Doe v. Bolton, you can have abortion up until the moment of birth to preserve the woman’s health, which of course is defined to include social factors, age, and pretty much anything any abortionist is willing to say could affect a woman’s well-being because the phrase “well-being” was used in the decision, in the name of health. Removing healthy sex organs in children? Health. It even moves into questions like assisted suicide. “Your health is so bad, you are better off dead.” Abortion of people with Down Syndrome—better off not living any longer, because they’re going to have a bad health outcome. So wherever you may stand on the vaccine—and there are all sorts of issues on the question—consider the implications of giving so much power to the federal government in the name of a public health emergency that will not be ending anytime soon. I was there when we were discussing when would we call this off. It’s not going to be called off probably for years as an official declared public health emergency.
The question of religious exemptions is right now being debated on vaccines. Of course, the only vaccines available in the United States were derived or tested on aborted fetal cell lines. HEK-293 was a cell line derived from an aborted child in the ’60s. They took the kidney—that’s what the “K” stands for—and replicated it specifically to find the freshest type of tissue that they thought would be helpful and untainted to test drugs on. So that’s cell line was used for the development or testing of the available vaccines. There are people of sincere religious belief who want nothing to do with being part of that grisly business of abortion, and don’t want to benefit from a child’s death—no matter how remote, no matter how far back—and don’t want to legitimize the practice. Others say, “Well, because of my particular health, [a vaccine] may be justified.” My point to you is that it always requires a justification. You cannot be agnostic and neutral about the question of the origin of what happened with these vaccines. There was a child that died and that child’s tissues were used for the vaccines that are out there now. Don’t just ignore it. Face it, and come to a conclusion.
Those that conclude that they don’t want the vaccine are now being hounded out of public life. Religious accommodations are part of our nation’s founding traditions. Even George Washington exempted Quakers from the American Revolutionary War when our very republic was at stake. That tradition has kept on throughout. But now, because we have the winds of secularism blowing when people don’t respect under God anymore, they see religious objections as a threat to society. Because those who are in favor of the vaccine mandates in their minds think there is no other counter-argument. People who are against it are actually evil and deserve to be treated that way. If we lose our religious freedom in the name of public health on this, it’s pretty much over on all the other issues we care about. Coercion on abortion is easy, and it won’t stop there.
So I recommend to you to become involved on this question. Even if you think that it’s morally justified in this circumstance for people to accept vaccines, stand up for people who have sincere religious beliefs against it. Because what we’re seeing—even from the Coast Guard itself—is a new form of religious inquisition, where we have secular bodies actually having notes on scriptures and saying, “If a service member comes in and says an objection on this, based on say the commandment thou shall not kill, here’s the counter argument based on some other scripture.” This is our government now, for the first time in who knows how long, delving into scriptures and coming to religious conclusions in order to counteract people’s religious freedom. That should be absolutely frightening to everyone here. Businesses are doing the exact same thing, and it’s not because they care about the truth of the scriptures. It’s not because they care. I’d feel a lot better if they actually cared about the truth of scriptures. Let’s have a debate about that, but that’s not the reason. It is because they want to find any excuse to discredit people of faith and to exclude them and safely label them as the enemy.
Now, that’s the state of where we are now. Things are not hopeless. We still have a Supreme Court that I think is going to overrule Roe v. Wade. We still have states stepping into the gap and pushing back on all of these issues. The shining light of the Supreme Court has been we haven’t lost a religious freedom case in now coming on to decades, and I expect that to continue. So there is hope. But the next couple of years, they’re going to be rough. They’re going to be rough, but I have hope no matter what. When I was in the Trump Administration and after the election, I expected we’d be where we are now. I didn’t feel bad then, and I don’t feel bad now because we’re not called to be successful; we’re called to be faithful. Because the fight is already won. Our Lord and Savior shed it all on the cross for us. Christ won the battle, but that does not mean the battle is over for us. We have to step into the breach, be happy warriors, and keep on fighting.
– END PART TWO –