Religious Imposition Proponents Find an Ally in the White House

The Trump hires at HHS could signal the administration is moving to stack the deck with religious imposition supporters.

The Trump administration seems to be packing the Department of Health and Human Services with people who have opposed the Affordable Care Act's birth control benefit or have ties with the pharmaceutical or health-care industries. Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

As a wave of laws allowing businesses and individuals claiming “religious objections” to avoid complying with civil rights laws sweeps the country, President Donald Trump appears to have quietly installed ardent supporters of so-called religious freedom on “beachhead” teams in various departments. Reportedly among those hires at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is Paula Stannard, who has worked to undermine the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit.

Religious imposition laws are “designed to shield private individuals and businesses from complying with nondiscrimination laws and to affirmatively deny services such as employment, housing, and reproductive health care based on a religious objection to that service,” as Rewire has reported. These include conscience-refusal laws that allow people to deny essential health services—including but not limited to abortion care and contraceptives—to employees or to people seeking health care.

After Trump won the election, his transition team’s website vowed his administration would “protect individual conscience in health care” and “protect innocent human life from conception to natural death, including the most defenseless and those Americans with disabilities.” And while speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, he similarly promised to safeguard religious imposition efforts.

HHS in particular could help impose religious barriers on health care by issuing new directives loosening, changing, or altogether rolling back the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, which requires private insurers to cover FDA-approved forms of contraceptives without a copayment. Tom Price, the department’s secretary, has made no secret of his distaste for the requirement, falsely alleging in 2012 that should it be removed “there’s not one” person who wouldn’t be able to afford contraceptives. 

ProPublica published its list of more than 400 individuals installed across federal agencies within the Trump administration in early March by compiling names provided by the Office of Personnel Management and through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Politico reported in January that the beachheads, “a team of temporary political appointees [deployed] into federal agencies to begin laying the groundwork for [Trump’s] agenda while his nominees await Senate confirmation,” were to skip inauguration and begin immediately working. A position within one of these teams was seemingly meant to last for the first few months of the administration until nominees were confirmed, but getting one of the jobs “means that you’re almost guaranteed a job if you want one in that department,” a GOP strategist close to the transition told the outlet.

Many of the temporary staffers are indeed expected to move to permanent positions after their four- to eight-month stints are up, according to ProPublica.

Though little is known about Trump’s beachheads, who were given roles in the agencies that did not require approval from the U.S. Senate, “close observers of the early weeks of the Trump administration believe they have taken on considerable influence in the absence of high-level political appointees,” according to ProPublica.

Stannard started on January 23 as a White House senior adviser for HHS, according to the publication’s investigation, and worked as a member of Trump’s transition team just before that. She previously worked at the agency under the George W. Bush administration from 2001 through 2009.

After the Obama administration took over in 2009, she departed HHS for the law firm Alston & Bird LLP. While there, she represented Criswell College in a 2012 suit attempting to block the birth control benefit by claiming it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the U.S. Constitution.

The Dallas-based college claimed the benefit forced them to cover emergency contraception, which they falsely deemed an “abortion-inducing” drug. Stannard and her law firm worked the case alongside Liberty Institute (now called the First Liberty Institute), a nonprofit law firm that according to its website is “dedicated exclusively to protecting religious freedom for all Americans.”

A district court judge later dismissed the case.

Stannard was supposedly among a group of anti-choice activists who collaborated on legislation that would become Trent Franks’ 2015 “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” according to long-time abortion opponent and commentator Hadley Arkes. In a 2015 overview of that year published in Human Life Review, Arkes wrote that Stannard was once his student and that she had joined him and other anti-choice activists and leaders the previous year to “restore the penalties” to legislation that were taken out of previous iterations of the bill.

The myth of the so-called born-alive infant and its accompanying legislation is a tactic used by anti-choice activists and lawmakers “to suggest that newborn children are being murdered by abortion providers with regularity and abandon,” Rewire has reported. In truth, there is no evidence of a pattern of infants being “born alive” after an abortion.

In a 2012 post for the website Catholic Thing penned by Arkes on other dubious “born-alive” efforts, he claimed that Stannard had worked within her capacity at HHS “to persuade people at HHS that any child surviving an abortion in a hospital was indeed now a ‘person’ (or ‘patient’) under the care of that hospital.”

Rewire attempted to contact but did not hear back from Arkes and Stannard on Stannard’s past and current roles at the agency, or her supposed background in anti-choice legislation. 

An HHS spokesperson told Rewire by email that the agency was “not commenting on personnel at this time” when asked about Stannard’s position and her background.

Stannard’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry and trade groups has caused criticism from advocates for government accountability of her hire. Her previous employer, Alston & Bird LLP, had a $9.6 million lobbying income in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org. Much of that income came from pharmaceutical companies and trade organizations, including Aetna Inc, the American College of Gastroenterology, HealthSouth Corp, the Kidney Care Council, and Novartis AG.

“Individuals who have close ties to regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals is worrisome, because such individuals are likely to pursue an agenda that is very industry friendly and not consumer and patient friendly,” Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research told Stat in November after Stannard was named to the president’s transition team.

Other members of the beachhead team at HHS identified by ProPublica also have ties to the health-care industry and conservative groups promoting a religious imposition agenda, though HHS would not confirm or comment on their employment when contacted by Rewire.

This lack of transparency is troubling given a recent report from the New York Times and Pro-Publica confirming that the Trump administration “is populating the White House and federal agencies with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who in many cases are helping to craft new policies for the same industries in which they recently earned a paycheck.”

As the Times explained, “the Trump administration is more vulnerable to conflicts than the prior administration, particularly after the president eliminated an ethics provision that prohibits lobbyists from joining agencies they lobbied in the prior two years.” Concerns over the administration’s lack of transparency have been compounded by news that the White House will not disclose their visitors’ log, therefore “discontinuing the release of information on corporate executives, lobbyists and others who enter the complex, often to try to influence federal policy. The changes have drawn intense criticism from government ethics advocates across the city.”

Heidi Stirrup started in January as a special assistant at HHS, according to ProPublica. Just prior, she spent six years as health policy staff for the Chairman of Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health in the U.S. House of Representatives. That included working to “protect conscience rights by modifying special rules relating to coverage of abortion services under the Affordable Care Act,” according to her LinkedIn profile.

Stirrup is listed as staff in attendance at several hearings seemingly related to Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s “witch hunt” into fetal tissue research in the wake of deceptively edited videos released by an anti-choice front group in 2015. She is also listed as staff present for a 2011 panel on whether the birth control benefit “threaten[ed] conscience rights and access to care.”

From 1995 to 1998, Stirrup was the director of government relations for the Christian Coalition, which according to its website is “a political organization, made up of pro-family Americans who care deeply about ensuring that government serves to strengthen and preserve, rather than threaten, our families and our value.” In recent years, the organization has encouraged supporters to “speak up for religious liberty,” including through the support of religious imposition legislation that would have expanded the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to allow any employer or insurer to refuse to cover services or benefits covered under the Affordable Care Act.

In her capacity with the organization, Stirrup helped “put … together” the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act of 1997, according to testimony from that year on the legislation from then-U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). The bill sought to sanction religious persecution abroad and was championed by evangelical Christian groups.

She also testified on behalf of the group in a 1996 hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives in favor of restricting welfare benefits for single women because “[t]he basic family unit has been under attack from illegitimacy, promiscuity, adultery, divorce and homosexuality.” Stirrup lamented that a “young girl on welfare can get a cash grant, food stamps, medical care, day care, a transportation allowance, and in many cases, a rent allowance,” and urged Congress to, among other things, increase funding for abstinence-only education and establish “paternity as a criteria for eligibility of benefits.”

While Stirrup was at the organization, the Christian Coalition’s then-executive director, Ralph Reed, was vocal about the organization’s stringent anti-choice position. He told the New York Times in 1996 that it “oppose[d] abortion in every case except when the mother’s life is in danger.”

A manual from the organization co-authored by Ralph Reed in 1990 reportedly suggested that employees must “submit” to their employers will, citing biblical passages on slavery. According to a 2011 Religious Dispatches post by Peter Montgomery, the manual argued that:

Of course, slavery was abolished in this country many years ago, so we must apply these principles to the way Americans work today, to employees and employers: Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man.

Stirrup worked as a senior legislative adviser at Venable LLP from 2003 to 2008. The firm’s clients between those years included AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, Sepracor Inc, and the National Association of Spine Specialists.

Another hire, Anna Pilato, is now serving as deputy assistant secretary for external affairs in the agency’s Administration for Children and Families. Though she worked for Trump’s presidential transition team immediately before joining HHS, before that she worked for the anti-choice group Concerned Women for America. The organization’s website identifies so-called religious liberties as “one of its seven core issues.”

As Rewire reported in 2011, Pilato once worked for Gov. Sam Brownback’s “faith-based initiatives” program in Kansas.

All told, the beachhead hires at HHS could signal the administration is moving to stack the deck with religious imposition supporters. But with the continued lack of transparency, both at the agency and in the administration at large, the public may not have the opportunity to see who the backroom dealers are working to impose this agenda.