Editor's note: This article was updated at 11:45 am EST March 8, 2013.

WASHINGTON — As threats to human life and religious liberty become embedded in federal law, the U.S. bishops are being forced to withhold support from legislation like the Affordable Care Act, which advances key social goals but authorizes policies that violate Catholic teaching.

This increasingly familiar pattern was repeated when the Senate and House last week approved the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (S. 47), and President Barack Obama signed the bill into law March 7.

The legislation offers a five-year extension of federal support for the investigation and prosecution of cases involving violence against women, along with related outreach programs, and Church leaders have lobbied for such provisions that would aid victims cared for in Catholic shelters across the nation.

However, in a joint statement released March 6, the chairmen of four committees and one subcommittee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said they could not back the bill because it included language that made  persons with a homosexual orientation or gender-identity  issues a protected class, and that such classifications  unnecessarily politicized the provision of services to those in need.

The Violence Against Women Act also incorporates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and the bishops were concerned about the bill's exclusion of conscience protections for the USCCB anti-trafficking program, which lost a federal contract in 2011 because it would not provide abortion and contraception referrals.

“Conscience protections are needed in this legislation to ensure that these service providers are not required to violate their bona fide religious beliefs as a condition for serving the needy,” said the bishops.

“Now that Congress has acted to change the law, we urge future action to revisit these concerns in the months ahead,” read the statement.

Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Bishop Kevin Rhodes of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., said they could not “support the version of the ‘Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013’ passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate (S.47),” in part, because of language that refers “to ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity.’” 

The bishops said that all “persons must be protected from violence, but codifying the classifications ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ as contained in S. 47 is problematic.”  

“These two classifications are unnecessary to establish the just protections due to all persons. They undermine the meaning and importance of sexual difference. They are unjustly exploited for purposes of marriage redefinition, and marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman with each other and with any children born from their union.”

Kathy Saile, director of the domestic social development office for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told the Register on March 8 that the conference wanted all vicitms of domestic violence to receive assistance.

“The existing legislation helped violence victims who were homosexual or heterosexual. Those services were available to all people, and the USCCB did not believe that the existing law prohibited states and providers from offering services to anyone," said Saile. 

“Some advocates argued that some states and providers did not understand that clearly and were not offering services to everyone and wanted to correct that.  The language that was offered went beyond that and created a special class of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people which the church objects to.” 

Legal experts on both sides of the "marriage equality" debate note that proponents of same-sex "marriage" seek to include same-sex unions in such legislation in order to show the courts that federal law already recognizes these relationships and marriage is a natural extension of these unions. In the months ahead, Capitol Hill will debate whether comprehensive immigration reform should include same-sex couples, a policy goal backed by President Obama and opposed by the U.S. bishops.

The joint statement offered no details regarding the practical consequences of the legislation for Catholic ministries dealing with domestic violence. The Wall Street Journal reported that the “$3.3-billion extension passed by both chambers says that federal grants can't go to groups that discriminate against gays. Some Republicans had argued the bill didn't need to spell out who was protected to prevent discrimination.”

At present, many advocates of same-sex “marriage” argue that opposition to their cause constitutes discrimination against persons with a homosexual orientation. In a Feb. 28 brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments in two high-profile marriage cases, the Obama administration argued that California’s Proposition 8 voter initiative banning legal marriage for same-sex unions was based on “impermissible prejudice.”


Trafficking-Victims Bill

However, the USCCB statement did express concern about the implications of the “Senate’s decision to incorporate into S. 47 a title reauthorizing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a provision added to the Violence Against Women bill.

The bishops noted that the reauthorization title "omits language to protect the conscience rights of faith-based service providers to victims of human trafficking.” 

The USCCB statement confirmed that the bishops' conference had lobbied for such protections, but failed to obtain them, with the result that the bill would likely continue and possibly advance “discrimination against faith-based providers.”   

While criticizing the bill’s adoption of politicized terminology like “gender identity” and its failure to include conscience protections for Church-affiliated anti-trafficking programs, the USCCB statement affirmed the Church’s commitment to the care and protection of women suffering from domestic violence.

“The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has a history of supporting the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and of providing ongoing support to victims of domestic violence through our social-service programs,” read the statement.

“This support is consistent with Catholic social teaching that reveres the inherent and inviolable dignity of all human persons,” stated the bishops, who noted that the conference had addressed the issue of domestic violence in its 2002 pastoral statement “When I Call for Help.”

The failure to modify the language in the Violence Against Women Act, or include conscience protections, was just one of several recent setbacks for Church leaders, who are intensely focused on pursuing legal and legislative remedies to the religious-liberty threat posed by the federal contraception mandate.

On March 5, 50 House members had co-sponsored the Health Care Conscience Rights Act of 2013, which offers a broad religious exemption and conscience protections for both private employers who oppose the HHS mandate and for Catholic hospitals and professionals that face pressure to facilitate abortions.

The USCCB and other supporters of the bill said they hoped it would be attached as an amendment in the continuing resolution to fund the federal government. But the House Committee on Rules would not agree to the plan, and the bill now has been stalled in the House.

Now, with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, the U.S. bishops failed to obtain the necessary  conscience provisions to allow their anti-trafficking program to receive federal grants again, and prevent a replay   of the Obama administration's 2011 decision to cut off funds to the USCCB's top-rated program because it didn't offer contraception and abortion referrals.

“In the end, the victims of human trafficking are harmed,” said the bishops, because Church-affiliated programs “are unable to render services that reach them and serve their human need.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.