- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Trump administration officials warned Tuesday of COVID-19 restrictions overriding religious liberty at home and overseas, marking International Religious Freedom Day.

In a virtual panel hosted by the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services, Ambassador Andrew Bremberg critiqued a lax response by international partners in responding to human rights violations of religious suppression during the pandemic.

“We have an office in the [United Nations] system dedicated solely to defending and advancing human rights,” said Mr. Bremberg, permanent U.S. representative to the Office of the U.N. and Other International Organizations. “And it has been frankly very disappointing at the lack of public awareness of these issues from that office.”

Mr. Bremberg referred to Russia’s continued crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses and China’s closing a square in front of a Tibetan monastery to worshippers while keeping it open to tourists during the pandemic.

In the U.S., Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights, touted his agency’s efforts to end hospitals’ excessive restrictions on clergy during the pandemic. He also noted his office facilitating a compromise between a medical student whose religion requires him to wear a beard and Staten Island University Hospital officials seeking to kick him out because his facial hair hampered the use of an N-95 mask.

Mr. Severino challenged the notion that worship is a “uniquely dangerous” during the pandemic.

“If you’re singing in a loud voice, if you’re praising God, it doesn’t make it any riskier than if you’re singing in a Broadway musical of if you’re protesting,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gatherings present an “increased risk” for transmission of the coronavirus. A study last month from the University of Georgia also suggests that airborne transmission of the virus in enclosed spaces is more dangerous than previously known.

A week before Election Day, Trump officials reflected on their four years of boosting religious liberty, from supporting the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious group of women, in challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate under conscientious objections to decrying China’s detention of Uighur Muslims.

Officials also sounded a note of concern about the future.

“You’ve got a fundamental choice between the Chinese model and the U.S. model on religious freedom,” said Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. “Pray for us that America wins that discussion.”

Claire Murray, the principal deputy associate attorney general, previewed legal cases that could make their way to the Supreme Court, including a federal lawsuit against a Vermont policy allowing rural children to attend private, but not religious, schools on state money.

Ms. Murray also said Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden has indicated that he would resume the Obama administration’s posture of enforcing the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

“Another administration could easily repeal the rules,” the Justice Department official said.

In July, the Biden campaign released a statement saying the former vice president would keep contraceptive exemptions for houses of worship and “nonprofits with religious missions” but allow women who are employed by these organizations to access birth control through their insurers or third-party administrator. The Little Sisters repeatedly have declined to authorize their third-party administrators to provide this coverage.

Mr. Brownback noted President Trump’s success in the Middle East, securing normalized relations between Israel and the governments of Bahrain and United Arab Emirates.

“This is really groundbreaking,” said Mr. Brownback. “Hats off to the president.”

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