An American Civil Liberties Union staff lawyer repeatedly questioned a top health official in President Donald Trump’s administration about his Christian faith during a court deposition and suggested his “religious imposition” impeded his adherence to the law, according to a transcript The Daily Caller News Foundation obtained exclusively.
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project Senior Staff Attorney Brigitte Amiri deposed Health and Human Services official Scott Lloyd on Feb. 13 as a part of the group’s lawsuit on behalf of unaccompanied minor children who sought abortions while in federal custody.
Lloyd is the the director of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is charged with caring for all minors who illegally enter the U.S. and cannot be placed with a relative or guardian. He sparked a national controversy in 2017 when he intervened to prevent seven teenage illegal immigrants in ORR custody from obtaining abortions.
In response, the ACLU sued Lloyd and other top HHS officials on behalf of four of the teens, arguing they placed an “undue burden” on the girls’ right to an abortion under the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. During the February deposition pursuant to the ACLU’s lawsuit, Amiri pressed Lloyd on his view of abortion in light of his Christian faith.
“Is your belief that the abortion is the destruction of human life informed by your religious faith?” She asked.
Lloyd’s view that abortion involves the taking of human life is informed by “the reality of the situation and the scientific facts,” he responded.
Amiri continued her line of questioning about Lloyd’s religious beliefs, including an examination of whether, in his view, abortion is a sin. Lloyd asked what that had to do with the ACLU’s lawsuit. It “has to do with a lot,” Amiri replied.
“This case is about — involves an Establishment Clause violation,” she said. “Your religious imposition is directly relevant to the case. So I get to ask the questions.”
A vocal pro-life advocate before joining HHS, Lloyd asserted agency policy prevents ORR officials from helping a minor under their care get an abortion unless he personally authorizes the procedure. As ORR director, he has refused to grant any of the abortion requests the unaccompanied minors made, offering instead “pregnancy services and life-affirming options counseling,” according to agency emails POLITICO obtained.
The counseling included referrals to crisis pregnancy centers, which are religiously affiliated clinics that advise women to give birth rather than getting an abortion. Lloyd also personally counseled some of the teens to try to talk them out of terminating their pregnancies, according to court documents.
The battle between the abortion seekers and Lloyd’s ORR first entered the federal courts in October 2017, when the ACLU filed suit on behalf on a 17-year-old girl known only as Jane Doe, who was blocked from getting an abortion while staying in a federally funded shelter.
HHS has no duty to facilitate abortions for unaccompanied minors, Trump administration lawyers argued. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. sided with the ACLU, ruling the government placed an undue burden on Doe’s right to an abortion.
The teen was allowed to obtain the procedure on Oct. 25.
Following that decision, the ACLU on Jan. 11 petitioned the court to add three similarly situated illegal immigrant teens to the case, known as Garza v. Hargan. The motion, which asked for class action status, also aimed to win a permanent injunction that would bar HHS from blocking any unaccompanied minors’ access to abortion.
At the time of the ACLU’s January filing, the Trump administration already permitted two of the three pregnant teens — known only as Jane Roe and Jane Poe — to obtain abortions. ORR released the third girl, Jane Moe, from its custody on Jan. 15.
Under HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the agency argued it is tantamount to facilitating abortions when letting unaccompanied minors in its care undergo the procedure — a violation of the Hyde Amendment. That legislative provision bars federal funds to pay for abortion except in cases of incest, rape or to save the life of the mother.
Lloyd’s insistence his position is consistent with federal law has drawn the ire of many Democratic lawmakers, who say he is incapable of guaranteeing the welfare of unaccompanied minors in his care. Earlier in March, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Patty Murray called for Lloyd to step down as ORR director.
Azar dismissed those concerns, telling lawmakers he “absolutely” has confidence in Lloyd. ORR will “absolutely comply with the law and the Constitution as determined by the courts,” Azar said March 15, according to the Washington Examiner.
For its part, the ACLU continues to question if Lloyd’s faith precludes him from following the law and meeting the medical needs of unaccompanied minors in ORR custody.
“Lloyd has almost no background in helping refugees,” Amiri wrote in a March 1 blog post. “Instead, his main qualification for the job is that he spent his legal career furthering his anti-abortion ideology based on his religious beliefs.”
Lloyd, who served as an attorney for Catholic fraternal and service organization Knights of Columbus, acknowledged the importance of religion to his personal identity. But his Christian faith has not hindered him from carrying out his duties as a public official, he said.
“My religious beliefs form the — they’re at the core of anything I would do in all settings,” Lloyd explained during his Feb. 13 deposition. “They motivate me to treat other people the way that I do. They are in a sense, they’re just part of who I am, core part of who I am. But they’re not a part of an analysis as to what happens in the termination request when I’m acting as director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.”