Bishop says ACLU suit over USCCB trafficking grants without merit

WASHINGTON – An American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over human trafficking grants allocated to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is without merit, according to the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration.

Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City said in a Jan. 15 statement that he hoped the U.S. Justice Department would “mount a vigorous defense” against the lawsuit, which charges that HHS is violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment “by permitting USCCB to impose a religiously based restriction on the use of taxpayer funds.”

The “religiously based restriction” it cited was that the USCCB requires its subcontractors providing the direct services to trafficking victims to not use the funds for contraceptives or abortion or contraception referrals.

Bishop Wester said the lawsuit threatened both “the weakest in our society” and religious liberty.

“The ‘services’ that ACLU would force taxpayers to fund would assault, rather than advance, the dignity of these neediest people in our society,” he said of the trafficking victims. “It also violates the long-standing principle of religious liberty to disqualify (USCCB Migration and Refugee Services) or any other religious provider of social services from working with the government based on the provider’s religious beliefs.”

The suit, ACLU of Massachusetts v. Leavitt, was filed Jan. 12 in the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, based in Boston. It asks for a permanent injunction requiring HHS to ensure that funds under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act are disbursed “without the imposition of religiously based restrictions.”

“We are asking the court to stop this misuse of taxpayer dollars and to protect the health and safety of trafficking victims,” said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney with ACLU of Massachusetts, in a statement. “Trafficking victims need comprehensive and compassionate care to gain their freedom and lead safe and healthy lives.”

The trafficking grants are administered through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Administration for Children and Families in HHS.

Kenneth J. Wolfe, deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs in the Administration for Children and Families, said Jan. 13 that he could not comment on the matter because it involved pending litigation.

According to the USCCB Web site, the bishops’ conference, through its Migration and Refugee Services, “administers the Anti-Trafficking Per Capita Services Program through a contract” with the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement “to provide services to survivors of human trafficking across the country.”

The 13-page lawsuit says that in a Feb. 23, 2006, technical proposal to the HHS office, the USCCB said, “As we are a Catholic organization, we need to ensure that our victim services funds are not used to refer or fund activities that would be contrary to our moral convictions and religious beliefs. … Specifically, subcontractors could not provide or refer for abortion services or contraceptive materials.”

The HHS office then asked the USCCB, according to the lawsuit, whether “a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy (would) work regarding the exception. What if a subcontractor referred victims supported by stipend to a third-party agency for such services?”

In response, the lawsuit said, the USCCB said it “cannot be associated with an agency that performs abortions or offers contraceptives to our clients. If they sign the written agreement (the subcontract), the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ wouldn’t apply because they are giving an assurance to us that they wouldn’t refer for or provide abortion service to our client using contract funding.”

The ACLU said the USCCB received $2.5 million under the HHS contract between April 2006 and April 2007 and another $3.5 million between April 2007 and April 2008. In fiscal year 2006, the “USCCB retained $900,192, or almost 40 percent of the congressionally appropriated funds, for administering the grant, while only $1.6 million … was spent serving individuals who were trafficked.”

The USCCB Web site says that, as administrator of the government contract, the conference provides “training, technical assistance and case consultation to subcontractors,” as well as the per-capita funding for administrative and client costs and continued monitoring of client cases and subcontracting agencies.

According to the U.S. State Department, between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked in the United States each year, most of them female and many of them for sexual purposes.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.