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Judge rules against bishops on program for trafficking victims

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services for victims of human trafficking cannot be imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services, a federal judge has ruled.

By delegating to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops the decision on which services to offer or not offer to trafficking victims, HHS violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, Judge Richard G. Stearns ruled March 23 in the case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in federal court in Massachusetts.

A USCCB spokeswoman called the ruling a disappointment March 26.

“The decision seems to ignore the right of free expression of one’s religious beliefs,” said Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, USCCB director of media relations.

“It’s very likely that we would appeal,” she said, adding that the conference’s general counsel continued to review the ruling March 26.

Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, welcomed Stearns’ decision.

“We all have the right to our own religious beliefs, but under the Constitution an organization can’t use federal funds to impose those beliefs on others,” Dalven told Catholic News Service March 27.

The government was wrong to authorize the USCCB to deliver only those services it deemed appropriate under Catholic teaching, she added.

“In this case, the court said that an organization administering a taxpayer-funded program to help human trafficking victims can’t deny this vulnerable population critical health services based on the organization’s religious beliefs,” Dalven said.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in 2009 after learning that HHS officials allowed the USCCB, through its Migration and Refugee Services department, to limit the scope of case management services provided under a five-year contract to assist trafficking victims. First signed in 2006, the contract permitted the USCCB to restrict offering specific reproductive health services, such as abortion, providing contraceptives and sterilization, on religious grounds even though the government’s original request for proposals to administer the program did not impose any such restrictions.

Stearns agreed with the ACLU’s contention that HHS violated its constitutional obligations by delegating discretion to the USCCB on which services would or would not be provided to trafficking victims.

The judge said in his ruling that the argument by HHS attorneys that department officials used “customary and neutral principles” without any religious motivation resulted in restrictions that ran contrary to the Constitution.

“To insist that the government respect the separation of church and state is not to discriminate against religion,” Stearns said in his decision. “Indeed it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others.”

He said the Constitution “mandates that the government remain secular, rather than affiliate itself with religious beliefs or institutions, precisely in order to avoid discriminating among citizens on the basis of their religious faith.”

Stearns said in a footnote to his ruling that the case “is not about government forcing a religious institution to act contrary to its most fundamental beliefs.”

“No one is arguing that that the USCCB can be mandated by government to provide abortion of contraceptive services or be discriminated against for its refusal to do so. Rather, this case is 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),” Stearns said.