DeVos, Severino, And The “Religious Freedom” That Will Harm Our Most Vulnerable

A later version of this story published on Medium

Meet Mimi Lemay, an amazing Mom, trans youth advocate, and someone I’m proud to know through the wonders of technology. Mimi did this MSNBC interview in May, 2016, after the Obama era guidance was issued regarding transgender students in public schools. That guidance clarified how to best support transgender students in schools across the nation, in light of more trans students being “out.” Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, schools receiving federal money may not discriminate based on a student’s sex, including a student’s transgender status. The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released in 2016, under President Obama, joint guidance to help provide educators with the information they needed to ensure that all students could attend school in an environment free from sex discrimination, and that in no uncertain terms included transgender students. 

During Mimi’s interview, notice the guy speaking in the replayed clip, from an earlier interview, who says that gender identity is a “new concept” (it isn’t), who does not want LGBTQ+ people to have rights, and who raises concerns about the safety of others with regard to sexual assault. The implication is that trans folks – or people “pretending” to be trans – will commit acts of sexual harassment/assault in public restrooms, and therefore, should not be legally permitted to use the public restrooms/locker rooms/changing facilities that match the gender they identify as. This is rather old news, but if you missed it, or just want to hear those points ad nauseam, here’s the interview in question:

As research has shown, again and again, trans folks aren’t the ones committing acts of sexual assault, nor are cis men dressing up like women/pretending to be trans so they can go into women’s public restrooms and commit sex crimes against women and young girls. Kids are statistically more likely to be sexually molested or assaulted by someone the family knows and trusts, like a church leader, scout leader, athletic coach, or even family member.

The fact that we’re still having to have this conversation infuriates me, but yet, here we are again. 

In case the guy in that second video clip is unfamiliar, take a moment to learn more about him: His name is Roger Severino. He was, at the time of that interview, from the Heritage Foundation, and the former Director of the DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society, Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity. (Yes, the same DeVos family that our current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, hails from – the same Betsy DeVos who knows nothing about public education and who singlehandedly destroyed Public Schools across Detroit, Michigan before becoming the Trump administration’s astonishingly, super-unqualified U.S. Secretary of Education.

It has been DeVos’s legacy to create programs and pass laws that require the use of public funds to pay for private school tuition in the form of vouchers and similar programs. While Trump distracts the nation with Twitter-tantrums, taunts to North Korea, undoubtedly racist rhetoric, and “The Wall,” Betsy DeVos is quietly busy dismantling our nation’s public education from the top, throttling our entire public school system toward complete and utter destruction.

In a Washington Post article from September, twenty-nine tangible ways that Betsy DeVos would harm public education were clearly spelled out. She has already refused to promise that she would not cut funding for public schools, and would not commit to withholding federal funding from private schools that discriminate. She is also fully supportive of Trump’s budget which slashes funding for traditional public schools, diverts Title I funds to bankroll a new school-choice program, eliminates after-school programs that serve 1.6 million children (primarily from low-income neighborhoods), cuts teacher training programs by $2.1 billion, and – here’s the real kicker, at least in my opinion – eliminates funding for special education programs. Have a kid in special ed? Wait til you see the changes that start rolling out as early as the 2018-19 school year.

We also know that DeVos unapologetically supported Trump’s attempts at rolling back federal protections for transgender students – which ultimately, didn’t succeed, because the law is still the law. But through Trump’s denouncement of trans students, trans military members, and LGBTQ+ people in general, it has certainly created chaos and muddied the waters for everyone. Talk about “draining the swamp”… it has only gotten fuller and deeper, and he’s the filthy hog bathing in it. 

The DeVos family (and their Center for Religion & Civil Society) are extreme religious conservative billionnaires who do things like:

  • Fund Crisis Pregnancy Centers (which are actually fake “health centers” that trick women by masquerading as full-service women’s health clinics – some even deceive women into thinking they provide abortion services to get them through the door, but then lie and use manipulation techniques to dissuade them from considering abortion), lie about abortion and other women’s health concerns in general, and perpetuate harmful myths and falsehoods already discredited by the larger medical community
  • Fight against LGBTQ+ rights
  • Fight against marriage equality

and a whole host of other deplorable actions against humans. 

So, how does Roger Severino tie into all this? He has a solid connection to the DeVos family and the entire extreme, alt-right sect of conservatism. And, as previously stated, he was the former Director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity. And he’s now a major player in Trump’s administration. 

Here is, in a nutshell, all you need to know about Roger Severino:

  • The Trump administration appointed Roger Severino as the Director of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights, i.e., the top Civil Rights Official. (This is the same Office of Civil Rights who, earlier in October, allowed employers to refuse to pay for birth control coverage, among other unbelievable actions.)  
  • Within the Dept. of Health & Human Services, Roger Severino is creating a new Division, the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom. (This was announced yesterday, Thurs. Jan. 18, 2018.) 
  • The Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom protects doctors, nurses, and other health care workers who refuse to take part in some kinds of care because of moral or religious objections.

From a report released yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered, the deputy legal director at the ACLU, Louise Melling, said those conscience objections could expand to allow health workers to refuse some services to gay, lesbian and transgender people. “This administration has taken a very expansive view of religious liberty,” she said in an interview. “It understands religious liberty to override anti-discrimination principles.” HHS makes clear that it won’t allow gender discrimination that is banned by federal law. The question, according to Melling, is whether the administration includes gender identity and sexual orientation in the definition of gender. Melling says there are many examples of health workers refusing care on religious grounds, including a nurse who didn’t want to provide post-operative care to a woman who had an abortion, a pediatrician who declined to see a child because his parents were lesbians, and a fertility doctor who didn’t want to provide services to a lesbian couple. 

This is somewhat in the same lane as bakers who refuse to bake wedding cakes for gay weddings on the grounds of moral or religious convictions, only, worse. Because here, you’re toying with people’s health, and people’s lives. 

So there you have it, folks. Just another day where the Trump administration continues their reign of bullying – whether their targets are the most marginalized groups on the fringes of society, or the very large groups that have made considerable progress with civil rights – like, women. No one except rich, white, cishet men are safe from Trump’s schoolyard bullying, and even that’s questionable.

Regardless, the Trump administration continues making it easier and easier for educators, doctors, mental health professionals, and others to deny care to women and LGBTQ+ people. This includes the most vulnerable – our TGNC children. With the addition of this vague and sweeping “Conscience and Religious Freedom” Division, the Trump administration furthered a move that could very easily jeopardize women’s access to birth control and their right to choose, hormone therapy for transgender people, fertility treatment for lesbian couples, and medications for HIV and AIDS – just to name a few. Undoubtedly, as usual, the transgender community will bear the brunt of the trauma from this new devastating blow. 

I’ll close here with Mimi Lemay’s apropos words from that 2016 interview:

“There are real world consequences to the bullying and harassment that is going on in schools against transgender students. When you tell a transgender girl who is a girl in her heart, in her soul, in every fabric of her being, that she has to be segregated from the students – either to use a different bathroom entirely, or has to be forced to be humiliated by going into the boys’ room, and possibly harassed and bullied by it – you are telling her that she is not valued, and she is not seen. What the Obama administration did this week is tell transgender people and students across the country that they are seen, that they are valued, that they will be protected. And I can’t tell you how thankful families like me are. I hope that no other child takes their life for this reason.” 

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