The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee for migrants and refugees criticized as “meritless” an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit concerning a government contract awarded to the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services for anti-human trafficking efforts.
Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, who chairs the Committee for Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), spoke regarding the ACLU of Massachusetts’ January 12 filing of a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The lawsuit claims that the HHS anti-human trafficking contract with the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services violates the separation of church and state by not funding abortion and contraception as part of its program.
Daniel Mach, ACLU Director of Litigation, argued that the Bush Administration allowed the USCCB "to impose its religious beliefs on trafficking victims by prohibiting sub grantees from ensuring access to services like emergency contraception, condoms, and abortion care."
Bishop Wester’s statement, published on Thursday, described as “second to none” the network of social services provided in the U.S. by the Catholic Church and MRS.
“HHS recognized this when it chose MRS to implement efforts to address the evil of human trafficking,” he continued, saying the HHS recognized that MRS efficiently provides “top-quality human services, in cooperation with numerous faith-based and non faith-based agencies.”
Bishop Wester reported that MRS served more than 1,100 clients between April 2006 and December 2008.
“Victims of trafficking—mostly women and children—desperately need access to the life-sustaining services provided under the program, such as food, shelter, legal services, coordination with law enforcement, medical screening, mental health care, safety planning, child care, employment assistance, and access to benefits upon eligibility such as refugee public benefits. These services uphold human dignity and the Church is eager to help provide them,” he continued.
“The ‘services’ that ACLU would force taxpayers to fund would assault, rather than advance, the dignity of these neediest people in our society,” Bishop Wester continued. “It does not help trafficking victims to disqualify the Church from working with HHS simply because the Church will not provide abortion and contraceptive services.”
The bishop argued that the lawsuit argument violates the “longstanding principle of religious liberty” to disqualify MRS or other religious providers from working with the government based upon the provider’s religious beliefs.
“It is ironic that this lawsuit purports to advance religious liberty. This claim is without merit,” he charged, saying the ACLU’s claim had already been addressed by the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision Harris v. McRae.
He said the MRS limits barring funding of abortion or contraceptives by subcontractors express a long-standing “common-sense public policy” observed by both Democratic and Republican administrations.
“We hope and expect that the U.S. Department of Justice will mount a vigorous defense against such a meritless lawsuit, particularly one that threatens such harm to the weakest in our society, and to religious liberty,” Bishop Wester’s statement concluded.
The ACLU claimed that the bishops’ conference was awarded $6 million to assist the victims, but USCCB spokeswoman Sr. Mary Ann Walsh told Reuters that, although that amount was authorized, "far less" money had been appropriated.