Last week, Donald Trump announced his intention to reopen the United States by Easter despite health experts’ warnings (although he’s since walked back his comments). “It’s such an important day for other reasons,” Trump said in an attempt to ingratiate himself further with his evangelical base, imbuing this deadly decision with religious significance. “I just think it would be a beautiful timeline.”
And it’s no coincidence that the President’s religious extremist supporters echoed this anti-science position.
R.R. Reno, editor of the influential religious magazine, First Things, advocated for pulling the plug on life-saving coronavirus safety measures. “There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost,” he wrote in a recent opinion column. “There are many things more precious than life.” Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of one of the largest evangelical universities in the world, demanded that Liberty University students return to campus, endangering their lives, as multiple students have either been quarantined or tested positive for COVID-19.
And then there are defiant churches in Louisiana, Colorado, and elsewhere that are openly bucking public health recommendations, as they purposefully draw in large crowds with the promise of healing. The White House has shown support for these efforts through Tony Perkins, head of the Christian nationalist group Family Research Council. In this light, Trump’s statement that “it’ll be a beautiful time [to] have packed churches all over our country” makes perfect sense.
But this is not the first time President Trump has undermined public health to win approval from his religious extremist backers. We must not forget that Trump and his appointees have spent the last three years doing everything they can to attack our national health care.
For example, just within the last year:
- In March 2019, HHS issued a final rule giving preference to religious organizations to receive funding for Title X family planning programs. This program is a vital source of health care for low-income, rural, and minority women, and the new rules have pushed out important providers like Planned Parenthood in favor of so-called “crisis pregnancy centers.” These fake health centers are more interested in advancing their religous, anti-abortion agenda than serving the health needs of women.
- In May 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finalized a rule to let health care providers and institutions deny care to patients based on religious beliefs. Later vacated by a federal court after legal challenge, this rule threatened the health, safety, and well-being of millions of Americans, as it would have allowed discrimination against vulnerable groups, such as LGBTQ people, people with HIV, women, and elderly people.
- In June 2019, HHS proposed a rule to strip protections for trans people from the Affordable Care Act’s nondiscrimination regulations. Then in November, HHS simply decided to stop enforcement of critical civil rights protections in grant programs allowing organizations receiving health and human services grants—totalling more than $500 billion annually—to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, and religion.
- In December 2019, HHS published a final rule that requires health insurance offered through a state exchange to separately bill any costs relating to coverage for abortion. Not only is this wasteful for insurers, it is extremely confusing for patients who now must separately submit multiple payments for their health insurance. If any of these payments are missed, their health insurance is dropped or irrevocably reduced in scope. The entire point of this rule is to force patients off their exchange insurance plans and to coerce these plans to not cover abortion.
- And in January of this year, HHS proposed new rules which would undermine religious freedom protections for individuals seeking or receiving federally funded social services. In other words, individuals could be forced to get essential services from religious groups, even if they object to discriminatory behavior by those groups or their religion-based programs.
At every turn, the Administration has favored the agenda of religious special interests and furthered their efforts to shape the law, to the detriment of patients. And these policy changes are just the tip of the iceberg. In court, the Administration has pursued a similar agenda, for example, by supporting efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, potentially resulting in the loss of coverage for millions of Americans.
Now, in the name of combatting this health care crisis, the Administration is seeking broad new powers that would undermine well-established civil rights protections. Trump has proven over and over again that his Administration cannot be trusted to act in the public interest. Trump’s appointees are far more interested in advancing their religion mission, at any cost, than protecting the health and well-being of all Americans.
We would be foolish to trust this President or his Administration with new powers. Instead, every effort must be made to stop them from using this crisis as a pretext to continue their crusade against civil rights and public health. The coronavirus pandemic will forever alter health care in this country. Let’s do everything we can to create a vision of health care centered on equality, religious freedom, and civil rights rather than the brutal disregard and Christian supremacy favored by Trump and his religious supplicants.
Opinion piece by Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists