WASHINGTON — Faith-based agencies that receive federal funds to assist unaccompanied minors from other countries may soon be required to provide access to abortion-inducing “morning-after” pills and abortions for minors who may be pregnant due to sexual abuse.
Joined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), a coalition of faith-based agencies have warned that an interim final rule published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement “falls short” of having adequate protections for organizations with moral objections to provide “all lawful pregnancy-related medical services,” which would include so-called emergency contraception and abortion.
“Faith-based organizations excel in caring for all people, and the right of those organizations to do so consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions must be respected,” the bishops’ conference said in joint comments filed Feb. 20 along with Catholic Relief Services, World Relief, World Vision and the National Association of Evangelicals.
The rule takes effect June 24. It applies to contractors and grantees that receive federal funding to assist minors who migrate to the United States without any parents or adult relatives. Last year, a surge of unaccompanied children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America overwhelmed Border Patrol stations and prompted faith-based agencies such as Catholic Charities to provide shelter, food, clothing and other emergency services.
“Religious liberty is really important for us to do the work that we do,” said Brian Corbin, the vice president of social policy for Catholic Charities USA.
Corbin told the Register that “religious freedom is at stake” and said he agrees with the bishops that the interim final rule is inadequate. Like the bishops’ conference, Corbin hopes the federal government will accommodate Catholic Charities’ religious and moral beliefs.
“One way or the other, we’re going to be faithful to Catholic social teaching,” Corbin said.
Obama Administration ‘Pattern’
The interim rule, published Dec. 24 in the Federal Register, marks the second occasion in four years that President Barack Obama’s administration has tied federal funding for humanitarian relief services to a requirement that contractors and grantees offer or refer their clients to organizations that provide emergency contraceptives and abortion.
In September 2011, the administration cut funding to the USCCB’s campaign against human trafficking because of new HHS standards that gave “strong preference” to agencies that offered referrals for the “full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.” Until then, the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services had been lauded for its efforts to provide food, clothing and medical care to human-trafficking victims.
“There seems to me to be a clear pattern here of denying funding to faith-based groups and to favor those groups that agree with [the Obama administration’s] ideology,” said Susan Yoshihara, the senior vice president for research and director of the International Organizations Research Group at the Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam). “It is a terrible trend”
Yoshihara said the HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement interim rule contains problematic requirements connected to sexuality. For example, Yoshihara wrote in the C-Fam Friday Fax that the interim rule requires care-provider facilities to train their staff in “LGBTQI” and to identify “transgender and intersex” unaccompanied minors.
Yoshihara told the Register that she learned about the interim rule while researching what she described as the Obama administration’s plan to quietly gut the Helms Amendment — which prohibits U.S. foreign aid from being used to pay for abortion as a method of family planning — through new regulations.
The interim rule, Yoshihara said, is another example of stealth “legislation through regulation.” She noted that the rule was published on Christmas Eve, when most federal lawmakers were away from Washington. Yoshihara added that many congressional staffers and non-governmental organization representatives whom she spoke to earlier in February had not heard about the rule.
“The Obama administration wanted to rush this through,” Yoshihara said. “There are laws on the books protecting faith-based groups, and this regulation completely ignores and contravenes the law of the land.”
In their joint comment, the faith-based agencies said the administration’s move to deny funding to agencies with religiously informed convictions violates the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which forbids the federal government from substantially burdening the exercise of religion.
“There is little question that a government requirement to provide or refer for items or procedures to which an organization has a religious and moral objection would impose a ‘substantial burden on its exercise of religion,” the bishops and other faith-based agencies wrote.
The agencies submitted their joint statement three days before the public comment period ended.
Asked about the concerns expressed by the bishops and other faith-based groups, and whether there would be an accommodation to meet their religious-freedom concerns, an HHS spokesperson told the Register, “All comments submitted to the interim final rule are considered, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement is in the process of reviewing all of the comments.”
The administration has said it will review all “germane” comments and respond to them in the preamble to the final rule, which the bishops and other observers say is insufficient.
“The preamble is not good enough,” Yoshihara said. “They’re going to have to make a better accommodation for faith-based groups and incorporate some provisions in the final rule.”
The current interim rule’s preamble outlines three proposed “accommodations” for faith-based agencies: They can either serve as a subgrantee with limited services, participate in a consortium where another organization provides the objectionable services or notify the federal government if an unaccompanied child qualifies for services, including referrals, to which the faith-based agencies have a religious objection.
Those proposed accommodations, the faith-based agencies said, are inadequate for several reasons. The agencies would be forced to make arrangements for procedures to which they have moral and religious objections. The first option would also disqualify them from being primary grantees, even though faith-based agencies are the best qualified and have the most experience in providing services to unaccompanied minors.
Strong Catholic Contribution
Currently, six of the nine national refugee-resettlement agencies in the United States are faith-based organizations. The USCCB is the largest, in terms of persons served, while World Relief mobilizes the resources of the evangelical community. Together, faith-based organizations resettle the majority of refugees entering the United States every year.
“The Church, and Catholic Charities specifically, has really been a leading agent in this country on immigration and migration over the centuries,” Corbin said, adding that more than 118 Catholic Charities agencies across the United States provide a whole range of refugee and immigration services that include residential centers, assistance with citizenship applications, visa petitions and legal representation, along with meeting basic needs such as food and shelter.
Corbin said Catholic Charities’ initial estimate is that “millions of dollars” are at stake, and he added that private fundraising would probably not be enough to offset the loss in federal funding.
“It could have a devastating impact on our agency’s ability to obtain contracts to help these unaccompanied minors,” Corbin said.
Through “practical discussions,” the bishops’ conference and the other faith-based agencies believe they can find a resolution that allows the federal government to fulfill its obligation to care for unaccompanied children while respecting the organizations’ religious and moral beliefs.
Said the bishops, “Faith-based organizations excel in caring for all people, and the right of those organizations to do so consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions must be respected.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.