The Department of Health and Human Services hosted a series of speeches on Thursday praising its decision to open a new “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” within its existing civil rights office. The event was emceed by Roger Severino, a longtime anti-LGBTQ activist who now leads the department’s Office of Civil Rights.
Over the course of the event, Severino managed to compare people who think that the law applies equally to nonbelievers and people of faith to Nazis. And he placed himself and other government officials working to undermine anti-discrimination laws on the same side as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The new division will head up the department’s efforts to ensure “that individuals and entities are free from coercion and can exercise their conscience and religious freedom rights,” for at least as long as Donald Trump is president. This will likely include some benign and even beneficial enforcement of civil rights laws, such as preventing a health provider from denying coverage to someone due to their religious beliefs. But is also likely to include a major focus on reproductive health and on enabling health providers to discriminate against LGBTQ patients.
As Politico reports, the new division is “part of a broader plan to protect health workers who don’t want to perform abortions, treat transgender patients seeking to transition or provide other services for which they have religious or moral objections.”
During the Obama administration, religious conservatives agitated for a special right to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, so long as that discrimination is justified by religious belief. This argument has made it up to the Supreme Court, which is currently considering Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Civil Rights Commission, a case brought by an anti-gay baker who refused to comply with Colorado’s law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Which brings us back to Mr. Severino’s unusual understanding of civil rights history.
In his speech introducing the event, Severino told a story about how he developed a commitment to “the notion of conscience” after reading about Jews on Nazi Germany who were forced to tread upon Hebrew words that, presumably, those individuals viewed as sacred. “I could see the common humanity of why if somebody’s forced to violate their conscience in every step they take, how it’s an attack, really, on their human dignity,” the anti-LGBTQ activist-turned-government official said.
Then things went even further off the rails. Severino compared his efforts to use religion as a justification for discrimination to the work of Dr. King — a man who devoted his life’s work to abolishing discrimination. “I had a chance to reread Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Severino said, before comparing Dr. King’s decision to go to jail in defense of African Americans’ civil rights to modern day religious conservatives’ appeals to conscience.
Nor was Severino the only speaker at the event to make such a comparison. During her time at the podium, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) also quoted Dr. King, quoting King’s statement that he seeks “a society that can live with its conscience.”
Such efforts to align modern day conservatism with the celebrated civil rights leader are hardly uncommon. As King transformed from a radical, egalitarian, and social democrat in life to a national saint in death, it is understandable that many political movements want to claim his mantle.
But the truth about King — and about the very nature of the human conscience — differs greatly from the message Severino and Hartzler tried to convey at Thursday’s event.
Contrary to Severino and Hartzler’s implication, the fight for civil rights was not a battle of men and women of conscience on one side and cartoonish villains on the other. Bigots and segregationists also typically viewed themselves as people of conscience. And they frequently justified their evil beliefs with professions of faith.
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents,” wrote Virginia Judge Leon Bazile in a 1959 opinion upholding his state’s ban on interracial marriage. “And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
Similar views were echoed by prominent elected officials. “Purity of race is a gift of God,” wrote Mississippi U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo in a book entitled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization. “And God, in his infinite wisdom, has so ordained it that when man destroys his racial purity, it can never be redeemed.”
Georgia Gov. Allen Candler defended inferior schools for black students on the grounds that “God made them negroes and we cannot by education make them white folks.” Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett proclaimed that “the good Lord was the original segregationist.” Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia cited passages from Genesis, Leviticus and Matthew to justify his opposition to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
These men all believed themselves to be men of conscience. And they believed themselves to be men of faith. And now the Trump administration will honor the claims of people who cite similar beliefs to justify anti-LGBTQ discrimination.