On Monday, a federal district court in Massachusetts ruled that an ACLU challenge to the government’s use of taxpayer dollars to impose religious doctrine on victims of human trafficking may go forward. The decision is a victory for women’s health and for the basic constitutional principle that federal dollars cannot be used to favor one religious perspective over all others.
Since April 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has awarded the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) millions of dollars to make grants to organizations that provide direct services to trafficking victims. HHS did this knowing that USCCB prohibits, based on its religious beliefs, grantees from using any of the federal funds to provide or refer for contraceptive or abortion services. We brought a lawsuit on behalf of the members of the ACLU of Massachusetts who object to their tax dollars being used for religious purposes.
Shortly after we sued, the government asked that the court dismiss the case. The government argued that taxpayers couldn’t bring the lawsuit. They argued that only, for example, a trafficking victim could raise an objection.
In Monday’s decision, Judge Richard Stearns eloquently recognizes the importance of allowing taxpayers to bring such legal challenges: “I have no present allegiance to either side of the debate [over taxpayer standing], only a firm conviction that the Establishment Clause is a vital part of the constitutional arrangement envisioned by the Framers, and perhaps a reason we have not been as riven by sectarian disputes as have many other societies. I also agree that a rule that has no enforcement mechanism is not a rule at all.”
Constitutional rights lack meaning if they are virtually impossible to enforce. It is unlikely a trafficking victim or a cash-strapped nonprofit organization that provides services to trafficking victims would come forward to sue the federal government, and it has been well established for the last 40 years that taxpayers can challenge government-funded religion.
Although these technical and esoteric legal issues seem like academic exercises, there is a lot at stake. This week’s court decision means that the ACLU can move forward with our challenge to ensure that the 14,000 individuals who are trafficked into the United States under brutal conditions, including those who are raped, receive the necessary care, including reproductive health care, to safely rebuild their lives.