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Pro-life provisions in US bishops' grant ruled unconstitutional
US District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns and Sr. Mary Anne Walsh.
US District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns and Sr. Mary Anne Walsh.

.- A federal judge sparked criticism after he ruled unconstitutional the government's accommodation of pro-life beliefs in an anti-human trafficking contract with the U.S. bishops.

“The bishops are disappointed and probably will appeal. This is another assault on the free exercise clause of the First Amendment,” Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops' conference, told CNA March 27.

The bishops' contract proposal for a major five-year grant was approved in 2006 under the Trafficking Victims Prevention Act. The proposal contained language ensuring that its victim services are not used to “refer or fund activities that would be contrary to our moral convictions and religious beliefs.”

It stated that subcontractors could not provide or refer for abortion services or contraceptive materials for its clients.

On March 23 U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns said that the government violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment “insofar as they delegated authority to a religious organization to impose religiously based restrictions on the expenditure of taxpayer funds, and thereby impliedly endorsed the religious beliefs of the USCCB and the Catholic Church.”

The District of Massachusetts judge said the case is not about government forcing a religious institution to act contrary to its fundamental beliefs, but about “the limits of the government’s ability to delegate to a religious institution the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others (who may or may not share them).”

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts had challenged the funding, which totaled $19 million and served over 2,700 trafficking victims.

Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, praised the decision.

“The court is right to insist that organizations receiving government funding cannot use their religion as an excuse to discriminate and withhold crucial services from victims of human trafficking,” she said March 24.

The bishops' grant ended on Oct. 10, 2011 amid controversy over the Obama administration’s decision not to renew the contract. In November of 2011, The Washington Post reported that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services decided against the grant despite staffers’ recommendation that it continue based on an independent review board’s high scores for the USCCB.

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, said in December of 2011 that the administration decided that the grants would go to the groups that would offer referrals for “family planning services” and “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”

But Steven Wagner, former director of the HHS department that administered funds for human trafficking programs, told CNA in a Dec. 1 interview that the funding initiative was created with the understanding that abortion and contraception were “totally inappropriate” to provide to those seeking aid.

Wagner, who from 2003 to 2006 helped design the assistance program for trafficking victims, said that none of the original grant applicants sought to provide referrals for contraception or abortion.

He warned that the administration was placing trafficking victims at “tremendous risk” by placing them in the hands of less-qualified organizations.

Abortion and contraception are not among the needs of trafficking victims that the federal program should seek to address, he added.

Sex traffickers often benefit from abortion because it allows their victims to be “back on the market” sooner. There are also problems with abortion clinics facilitating trafficking by providing abortions but failing to report suspected trafficking to authorities, Wagner said.


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