Catholic and Evangelical humanitarian agencies are among the U.S. groups responding to the massive influx of unaccompanied minors from Latin America, but a new federal rule could require them to refer the children for abortion or lose their grants.  

A coalition of these faith-based agencies called on the federal government to amend the rule so that the government can meet obligations to care for these children while "respecting the religious and moral beliefs of faith-based organizations that, to date, have provided such critical care for this vulnerable population."

Joining the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a Feb. 20 statement to federal rule makers were leading organizations like Catholic Relief Services, the National Association of Evangelicals, World Vision, and World Relief.

Every year, thousands of unaccompanied minors from Mexico and Central America enter the U.S. without documentation. Last year witnessed a significant surge in their numbers, with many young people fleeing increased violence or a worsening economic situation.

On Dec. 24, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement published an interim final rule that addresses unaccompanied minors who may be pregnant due to sex abuse. The rule requires the provision of "timely and comprehensive information" and "timely access" to "all lawful pregnancy-related medical services," which the coalition's letter says "apparently includes abortion."

The rule also requires "timely, unimpeded access" to emergency contraception for unaccompanied minors who are victims of sex abuse. Some of these "emergency contraception" drugs may cause early abortions.

The coalition stressed faith-based organizations' "important role" in providing services for unaccompanied minors other and newcomers to the U.S. Six of the nine national refugee resettlement agencies are faith-based.

But that role could be in danger.

"The text of the rule includes no religious or moral exception," said the coalition statement to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The statement insisted on "adequate protection" to prospective grantees, subgrantees, contractors, and subcontractors with objections to providing, or helping to provide, the items and procedures.

Faith-based organizations' religious and moral convictions to protect human life are why they represent "such a significant portion of grantees" serving unaccompanied minors, the coalition said. Church-affiliated organizations have an advantage in gaining the trust of unaccompanied minors because similar entities provide support and assistance in their home countries.

The coalition praised the rule's preamble for voicing a commitment to providing ways for organizations to partner with the government even if they have religious objections. However, the coalition said a "meaningful accommodation" should be placed in the text of the rule itself. The preamble's options to protect religious and moral objections are also "inadequate."

One proposed option for accommodation would disqualify organizations with objections from being primary grantees despite their experience in assisting unaccompanied minors. The organizations could only be subgrantees.

"Such a discriminatory effect would immediately work to the detriment of the children who are the intended beneficiaries of the program," the coalition said.

The group added that other options are also problematic and would require organizations with religious or moral objections to refer for or arrange the objectionable items or procedures.

The coalition said the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 bars the denial of government funding for groups that exercise their freedom of religion.