The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is appealing a recent federal court ruling that deemed its government contract to provide relief to trafficking victims to be unconstitutional. The federal contract, which has not been renewed, called for the USCCB agency, Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), to serve as a general contractor for a network of services throughout the nation.

The reason given for the ruling: The MRS contract with the federal government barred referrals of abortion and contraceptive services to trafficking victims.

The USCCB filed its notice of appeal April 17 and is requesting that a federal appeals court stay the lower court’s ruling until issuing its own decision.

At stake, the bishops say, is a “poorly reasoned” and “dangerous” legal precedent that ultimately threatens dozens of Catholic organizations, as well as all other faith-based service providers that cooperate with government entities to provide various social services.

“This ruling, if not stayed, threatens to have a severe disruptive effect on the social-services activities that the bishops’ conference carries out in collaboration with the federal government,” according to a recent legal filing from the USCCB. The filing said there are several other contracts, grants and arrangements between the U.S. bishops and the federal government under which the bishops’ conference’s Migration and Refugee Services receives funding to provide a range of social services to refugees and other recent immigrants.

“Indeed, all faith-based service providers are threatened, because the court’s novel rule severely restricts the ability of government to accommodate any contractor’s religious commitment, Catholic or otherwise,” said Baltimore Archbishop-designate William Lori, chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Migration, in a joint April 17 statement.

Meanwhile, the author of a federal law which funds services to foreign victims of trafficking in the United States applauded the bishops’ decision to appeal.

“The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been a dedicated, compassionate and an extremely effective partner in the efforts to alleviate the suffering of thousands of trafficking victims found in the United States,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-NJ, said in a statement today. The ruling against the MRS contract, he said, “is an egregious attack on religious freedom and conscience and does a tragic disservice to trafficking victims.”


In Defense of the Poor

The bishops said they decided with a “great sense of urgency” to appeal the court’s March 23 decision in ACLU v. Sebelius in part to defend “our first freedom, religious liberty.”

“The people most in need of human services — the poor, the sick, the marginalized — would suffer the most from such a broad exclusion of faith-based providers from cooperation with government,” the bishops said.

The judge’s ruling stems from a 2009 federal lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed in U.S. District Court in Boston.

The ACLU challenged the USCCB’s stance to not refer trafficking victims to agencies that provide abortion and contraception services. The ACLU alleged that the Department of Health and Human Services — the federal agency that managed the anti-trafficking grants — “allowed the USCCB to impose its religious beliefs” on trafficking victims.

The ACLU took issue with HHS permitting the USCCB to restrict certain reproductive health services from trafficking victims when the government’s original requests for proposals in administering the grants did not mention any such restrictions.

“Particularly in a nation founded on the separation of church and state, the Catholic Church has no place in dictating the way that government funds should be used, and persons who have been victims of trafficking deserve comprehensive care that includes autonomous decision-making over their families and their lives,” the ACLU said in a prepared statement.

In defending the contracts, government lawyers argued that providing federal funds to the USCCB was constitutional and said the bishops, through their Migration and Refugee Services department, had been “resoundingly successful” in assisting trafficking victims since the USCCB was first awarded the grant in 2006. The USCCB legal filing says 75% of refugees who received assistance through Migration and Refugee Services achieved self-sufficiency through employment within 180 days, notwithstanding the downturned economy.

In 2010, the USCCB joined the federal lawsuit on the side of HHS, as a defendant-intervenor (an individual who joined the defendant to resist the plaintiff’s claims). The bishops said no public funds had been spent by the government on proselytizing or any other form of religious activity, but, rather, for legitimate social services.

However, that was before HHS, under the leadership of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, stripped the anti-trafficking grant from the bishops’ conference last September because of the bishops’ refusal to provide victims with “the full range” of gynecological and obstetric care. Two agencies were eventually awarded the grant funding, even though they scored lower than the bishops’ conference on an HHS independent review board’s scoring scale.

The USCCB said neither the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the federal statute authorizing government funds for relief services, nor the request for contract proposals required providers such as the USCCB to facilitate abortion or contraception funding.

Also, no trafficking victim ever complained for lack of government funding for abortion, contraception or sterilization during the five years that the USCCB received grant funding, according to the bishops.


Dangerous Precedent

However, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns said last month in Boston that ACLU v. Sebelius underscored 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 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 also seemed to anticipate a religious liberty/discrimination argument, writing in his decision’s footnotes that the case was “not about government forcing a religious institution to act contrary to its most fundamental beliefs.”

“No one is arguing that the USCCB can be mandated by government to provide abortion of contraceptive services or be discriminated against for its refusal to do so,” said Stearns, who added that protecting the separation of church and state does not 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,” Stearns said.

ACLU officials praised Stearns’ decision.

Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts, said federal laws required the full range of health care to be provided to human-trafficking victims.

“While the Catholic bishops are entitled to their beliefs, freedom of religion does not mean the bishops get to impose their doctrines on others with the use of taxpayer dollars,” Wunsch said.

However, Archbishop-designate Lori and Archbishop Gomez said the judge’s decision takes restrictive Supreme Court precedents on religious freedom and “stretches them, almost beyond recognition, to encompass the facts of our case.” 

If allowed to stand, or find broader application, Stearns’ ruling would have a “devastating practical impact,” the bishops said.

“But if the rationale of this decision spreads, dozens of Catholic organizations from across the country that cooperate on similar terms with government agencies at all levels — federal, state and local — will have their work similarly threatened,” the bishops said.

Stearns’ ruling also “says and does the opposite,” the bishops said, of what former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas once famously said: that when government acts to accommodate religion, “it follows the best of our traditions.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from El Paso, Texas.