Roger Severino Will Lead The Office For Civil Rights

by Morgan Brinlee
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

News that President Donald Trump appointed a former Heritage Foundation staffer to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) civil rights division last week has caused some concern among members of the LGBTQ community. But who is Roger Severino, and why has his appointment as director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS proved so controversial?

Severino has been long criticized for being anti-LGBTQ, though a Heritage Foundation spokeswoman has argued that he will fight for the freedom of "all Americans" in his new position. But based on his record, there's surely reason to be concerned.

For example, a report on Obamacare's gender identity mandate Severino co-authored in 2016 for the Heritage Foundation argues that rules prohibiting the "differential treatment" of transgender people in health services would "penalize medical professionals and health care organizations that, as a matter of faith, moral conviction, or professional medical judgment, believe that maleness and femaleness are biological realities to be respected and affirmed, not altered or treated as diseases."

That same year, Severino also wrote an opinion piece for The Daily Signal in which he hailed North Carolina's controversial transgender bathroom bill as "commonsense" policy and criticized HHS' proposal to broaden discrimination on the basis of sex to include discrimination that results from so-called gender stereotypes, or the idea that gender is comprised only of male and female. "The radical left is using government power to coerce everyone, including children, into pledging allegiance to a radical new gender ideology over and above their right to privacy, safety, and religious freedom," Severino wrote.

Severino's criticism of pro-LGBTQ legislation doesn't end there. In 2007, he argued that legalizing same‐sex marriage would come at a cost to religious liberty in an article for the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, entitled "Or for Poorer? How Same-Sex Marriage Threatens Religious Liberty."

Due to his history of opposing pro-LGBTQ legislation, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) labeled Severino an "anti-LGBTQ activist" in a statement released March 24.

"I could not think of a more dangerous person to head up the Office of Civil Rights at HHS," JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president of policy and political affairs of HRC, said in the statement. Winterhof argued the Trump administration was allegedly "declaring war" against the LGBTQ community with his appointment of people like Severino.

When asked for comment, the HHS sent ProPublica Severino's biography and Heritage spokeswoman Marguerite Bowling replied to the request with a statement defending Severino's civil rights record.

"Roger Severino has a distinguished record of fighting for the civil rights and freedoms of all Americans," she said. "We have no doubt that Roger in his new role at HHS will protect the civil rights of all Americans."

Despite LGBTQ and civil rights advocates' criticisms, some would argue that Severino does have experience in civil rights. Prior to taking a position as director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society in the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation in 2015, Severino worked as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. There he worked to ensure the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and Title II and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to his biography on HHS' official website.

Will Severino be able to put aside his personal opinions on LGBTQ protections in order to carry out the OCR mission of ensuring all Americans, even transgender men and women, have equal access to health services without unlawful discrimination? Many LGBTQ activists remain doubtful.