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Biden HHS Pick in Jeopardy Over Religious-Freedom Concerns

California attorney general Xavier Becerra (D.) / Getty Images

Republican lawmakers and religious-liberty groups are campaigning to defeat President-elect Joe Biden's pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

The selection of Xavier Becerra (D.), California's attorney general and a former member of the House of Representatives, drew condemnation because of his record on religious liberty in one of the biggest jurisdictions in the country. If confirmed, Becerra would head the department in charge of implementing federal health policy in hundreds of health care systems across the country. Two Republican senators have already condemned the choice of Becerra to lead the department, marking a potential death blow against his nomination.

Republican senator Steve Daines (Mont.) said that Becerra has made a career out of "attacking the religious freedom" of faithful Americans.

"Xavier Becerra is a disaster for religious freedom and pro-life issues," Daines said. "He has made his career aggressively pursuing a radical pro-abortion agenda and attacking the religious freedom of Americans who believe in the sanctity of human life."

Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) echoed Daines's criticism, saying that Becerra is "unqualified" and that he would be voting no on the pick. He urged his fellow senators to do the same.

Activists said Becerra was hostile to religious liberty throughout his career. He prosecuted California pro-life activists who leaked undercover videos allegedly showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sale of fetal tissue. He also advocated for an unconstitutional law that required crisis pregnancy centers to refer women to abortionists. Religious-liberty groups and law firms have also called for Becerra's defeat because of his record of targeting religious Americans.

"As California's Attorney General, Xavier Becerra repeatedly attacked long-held religious freedom protections for doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals and labeled federal protections that protect health care professionals from being coerced into performing abortions against their will as ‘offensive' and ‘dangerous,'" said Justin Butterfield, deputy general counsel at First Liberty Institute.

Denise Harle, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, pointed to Becerra's unsuccessful defense of a 2015 California law that required crisis pregnancy centers to post information about abortion referrals. The crisis pregnancy centers argued that mandating the advertisement of abortion services contradicted their missions.

"Alliance Defending Freedom had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to stop Becerra from forcing religious pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise for abortions," Harle said.

"And while churches in California had to wage court battles in order to open their doors, abortion facilities have been treated as ‘essential' businesses, giving the abortion industry a free pass to continue exploiting women throughout a pandemic," she said. "Becerra's record shows that he has no regard for conscience or protecting life."

The Biden transition team and Becerra's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Becerra's time as a member of the House of Representatives also suggests a desire to revisit the Supreme Court's Little Sisters of the Poor ruling. Becerra cosponsored legislation in 2007 that would have mandated that all employers provide contraceptive coverage to employees, with no exception for religious conscience. President-elect Biden has vowed to reverse the Court's ruling in favor of the nuns.