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Victory! Court to Bishops: Federal Help for the Most Vulnerable Should Have No Strings Attached

Andrew Beck,
Senior Staff Attorney, Reproductive Freedom Project,
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March 27, 2012

Once again the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has attempted to impose its religious beliefs on those who don’t share them. This time, they did so in an attempt to deny victims of human trafficking access to reproductive health services in a federally funded program.

Fortunately, late Friday night, a federal judge ruled that religion isn’t a license to discriminate and that the government cannot award a contract to an organization that denies services to trafficking victims based on the organization’s religious beliefs.

Thousands of individuals are trafficked into the United States each year under brutal conditions. Many of these trafficking victims are women who have been raped by their traffickers or forced into prostitution, and for many, access to reproductive health care — including abortion, contraception and condoms to prevent transmission of HIV and other STDs — is essential.

Starting in 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded USCCB millions of dollars to make grants to organizations that provide direct services, including medical services, to trafficking victims. HHS awarded USCCB this contract knowing full well that they intended to impose their own religiously based restrictions on the federal funds by prohibiting grantees from using the government funds to provide or refer for contraception and abortions for trafficking victims. We sued HHS on behalf of the members of the ACLU of Massachusetts, who object to their tax dollars being used for religious purposes.

The court ruled that it was unconstitutional for HHS to allow USCCB to place religiously based restrictions on the use of taxpayer dollars. As the court explained, 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).” By giving USCCB the power to withhold vital taxpayer-funded services from trafficking victims based exclusively upon the bishops’ religious beliefs about the morality of contraception and abortion, the government impermissibly endorsed those beliefs, allowing USCCB to impose religious doctrine on others with taxpayer money.

This important decision makes clear that while we all have the right to our religious beliefs, the government cannot authorize a religious organization to use taxpayer money to impose those beliefs on others. The court said it best when it observed that “to insist that the government respect the separation of church and state is not to discriminate against religion; indeed, it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others.”

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