ACLU targets grants for pro-life groups that aid migrants

Child peering through fence Immigration Credit Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen via Flickr CC BY NC SA 20 CNA 5 28 15 Child peering through fence. | Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Catholics and other groups that receive grants to care for immigrants are in the sights of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services.

The legal group's recent lawsuit says that social agencies that get federal money to care for refugees and undocumented migrants from Central America should be required to offer contraception and abortion, even if they have religious objections.

Among the lawsuit's claims: the federal government's accommodation of religious beliefs violates the First Amendment's prohibition on establishment of religion. It also claims a 1997 court settlement and later federal regulations oblige agencies with federal contracts to provide the coverage.

Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor, told the New York Times that he thought the ACLU's claim is weak due to precedents of federal agencies granting exemptions in their spending programs.

When undocumented, unaccompanied migrants under the age of 18 are detained by federal authorities, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement places them with private agencies until they are placed with a sponsor or deported.

A large portion of these agencies are run by charitable religious organizations.

According to the ACLU, at least 11 of the more than 30 private agencies that received grants in 2016 to care for undocumented minors are affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or other religious groups that oppose abortion and contraception.

Among those served by these agencies are unaccompanied minors from Central America who were detained at the border. Their numbers surged in the 2014 fiscal year to over 57,000 people.

The ACLU said it knows of about two dozen cases in the last five years in which pregnant girls, many of whom said they had been raped, requested abortions. About one-third of the unaccompanied minors are girls. Many were the victims of sexual abuse at home or during their travel to the U.S.

In several cases, when the girls wanted abortions, they were transferred to different agencies to obtain them.

ACLU lawyer Brigitte Amiri said placement decisions should be based on "what is in the best interest of the child."

She said that the current system of giving religious exemptions to groups such as the U.S. bishops amounts to authorizing those organizations "to violate the law and impose their religious beliefs on these young women." She characterized abortion and contraception as "care they desperately need."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told CNA it does not comment on pending court cases.

In another case brought by the ACLU, a federal court in Massachusetts ruled in 2012 that federal grants to Catholic bishops for care of sex-trafficking victims violated the establishment clause. That decision was vacated when the contract was not renewed by the Obama administration.

The failure to renew the contract was itself controversial, given that the U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services was one of the top-rated providers of care for victims. In a September 29, 2011 letter, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan had warned that the administration was requiring that the refugee program provide "'the full range of reproductive services' to trafficking victims and unaccompanied minors in its cooperative agreements and government contracts."

The ACLU has also worked to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions and to end religious freedom protections it says are discriminatory.

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