Since taking over the Office for Civil Rights in 2017, Severino has consistently taken action to protect people’s religious rights in health-care settings. According to Severino, UVMMC’s alleged actions are part of a broader pattern at that medical center, and around the country, of health-care workers being forced to participate in procedures they find morally or religiously objectionable. When it comes to abortion and end-of-life procedures, these objections are often protected by law, including the Weldon Amendment and the Church Amendments. Severino claims that enforcement of these statues has been systematically neglected by previous administrations. In 2018, he established a new office dedicated to investigating claims made along these lines, and this spring, HHS finalized a rule designed to protect people with these kinds of objections.
While Barack Obama–era officials have maintained that they took conscience complaints seriously but received relatively few of them, Severino said his office has seen “a surge of complaints” in the two and a half years since Trump’s election. In fiscal year 2018, according to numbers provided by HHS, the Office of Civil Rights received and dealt with more than 1,300 complaints alleging conscience violations or religious discrimination. Trump “has set the tone … that this is going to be taken seriously by the federal government,” Severino said. “If you don’t tell the world that you’re there to help, then people … get frustrated and have nowhere to turn.”