Biden HHS Favorite Would Revive Obama-Era Attacks on Religious Freedom

Sasse: 'Nominees who can’t pass basic civics tests are going to have a hard time getting confirmed'

Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks during a news conference. (Photo by Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images)
December 4, 2020

One of the favorites to lead President-elect Joe Biden's Department of Health and Human Services spearheaded the attempt to revoke religious liberty protections instituted by the Trump administration, a position that could lead Senate Republicans to challenge her confirmation.

If nominated and confirmed, New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D.) would lead one of the largest departments in the federal government overseeing the implementation of health care regulations. During her time in the House of Representatives, Grisham authored legislation that described religious conscience rights as "discrimination." In 2018, Grisham introduced a bill to abolish the department's Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, which was created in the wake of a legal conflict between the Obama administration and Catholic nuns who objected to the contraception mandate.

Neither the Biden transition team nor Grisham's New Mexico office responded to requests for comment.

Grisham's record on religious freedom raised the ire of Republican senator Ben Sasse (Neb.), who told the Washington Free Beacon that Grisham "could have a hard time getting confirmed" if she does not respect First Amendment rights.

"Religious liberty is pretty straightforward: Bureaucrats can't make rabbis eat bacon. They can't compel Muslim clerics to shotgun beers. And they can't force nuns to pop birth control pills," Sasse said. "Nominees who can't pass basic civics tests are going to have a hard time getting confirmed."

The Trump administration pursued conscience protections to ensure that religious health providers, doctors, and nurses would not be forced to participate in procedures and practices that violated their beliefs. Grisham, who has won the support of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in Democratic circles, called such accommodations "extremely troubling."

"While peoples of faith can have honest disagreements, religious beliefs should not be used to further roll back access to health care," Grisham said.

Earlier this week, CNN reported that Grisham has emerged as the favorite to be nominated to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Leaks from Biden's transition team indicated that Grisham had turned down the position of secretary of the interior and downplayed Grisham's chances for the health secretary nomination. The leaks prompted backlash from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

A Grisham nomination would clash with Biden's appeal to religious voters down the stretch of the 2020 election. The former vice president repeatedly touted his faith and made explicit appeals to Catholic voters in an attempt to address criticism of his pro-abortion policies. Exit polls estimated that Biden and Trump were neck and neck among Catholic voters. Despite the campaign rhetoric, Biden has vowed to reverse the Supreme Court's decision in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the nuns who challenged the contraception mandate.

Catholic voter groups expressed concern that a Biden administration could target religious hospitals. Catholic health ministries have more than 600 hospitals and 1,600 health care providers in the country, and 4 of the 10 largest health care systems in the country are Catholic. Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, said a Grisham nomination could prove fatal to the future of medical charities and facilities that serve millions of Americans each year.

"Grisham's legislation represented a direct attack on the freedom of health care providers to serve their patients consistent with their own medical judgment and moral beliefs," Burch said. "If he selects Michelle Lujan Grisham, Biden is signaling that he intends to end Catholic health care in America."