The Department of Health and Human Services is defending its decision to withhold over 10,000 comments that criticize the department's proposal to rollback regulations for religious and faith-based groups which could be used to deny certain patients services and coverage.
"There has been a voluminous response to the [request for information], and the center’s team is working through a review of the submissions," Shannon Royce, who heads the agency’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships said in a statement on Monday, Politico reported. In prior years, Royce has been a devoted anti-abortion advocate.
A public commenting process began in October when the Trump administration announced its plan to reduce regulations that "could allow such groups to cite religious exemptions and deny certain services and care," Politico reported.
Out of the 10,729 total comments, only 80 have been made public — and 71 of those comments are in staunch support of the Trump administration's anti-abortion policies or regulations such as requiring transgender patients receive coverage from hospitals that receive federal funding.
"The government can’t discriminate in a public forum," Rachael Klarman, an attorney of Democracy Forward, told Politico. "There’s some recent case law that would suggest that’s a pretty big problem under the First Amendment."
Royce previously served as the chief operating officer of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian nonprofit, until May of 2017, and aside from being anti-abortion, Royce previously deemed transgender people as "an assault on the sexes." The words came from a 42-page brief posted by the group from when Royce still held a top position.
"Neither lawmakers . . . nor medical professionals should participate in or reinforce the transgender movement's lies about sexuality," the brief said, Politico reported.
But activist groups such as the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, which is made up of several organizations such as the ACLU and NAACP, have fired back.
"[The] blanket religious exemptions could lead to harm to beneficiaries and employees, and could undermine the effectiveness of HHS programs," a comment posted by the coalition that has gone unpublished by HHS read. "Individuals should not be denied the services they need or the constitutional and civil rights protections to which they are entitled because of the religious beliefs cited by the organization paid by HHS to deliver those services."
The defense of withholding comments fits multiple broader Orwellian themes within the Trump administration, including silencing forms of dissent, increasing transparency and catering to the wants and needs of religious or faith-based institutions. The White House recently removed its petition tool from its official website, with plans to launch it as a new website in January 2018, the Associated Press reported.
The Trump administration has not addressed any of the 17 petitions since Trump's inauguration that have reached the 100,000 signature threshold, but said they will be restored, the AP reported.
The news also comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last week that staffers were not allowed to use words such as "diversity," "fetus," "transgender" and others, in official documents, as Salon previously reported.
Among the 17 petitions with over 100,000 signatures are calls for President Donald Trump to release his tax returns, and to place his assets, from his previous private real estate empire, in a blind trust.