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NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | ACLU Sues HHS Over Religious Restrictions on Funds for Programs Serving Sex Trafficking Victims

NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | ACLU Sues HHS Over Religious Restrictions on Funds for Programs Serving Sex Trafficking Victims
[Jan. 13, 2009]

The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday filed a lawsuit against HHS, alleging that the agency is allowing a Roman Catholic organization to limit grant money to organizations that do not provide access to contraception and abortion services for human trafficking victims, the Boston Globe reports. According to the Globe, HHS contracted with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2006 to assist immigrants who had been forced into commercial sex work or slave labor. About $6 million in federal grant money has been distributed by USCCB to not-for-profit groups that assist more than 600 victims in the U.S. The ACLU said the church's restrictions on funding distribution present serious health risks because sex trafficking victims have a higher incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, the Globe reports (Sacchetti, Boston Globe, 1/13). The ACLU suit alleges that USCCB is misusing taxpayer money and attempting to impose its religious beliefs on trafficking victims. ACLU claims that USCCB has prohibited its subcontractors from providing emergency contraception, condoms and abortion services, the AP/Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

Congress in 2000 passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which enables the federal government to distribute funding for services for victims of severe forms of trafficking. Brigitte Amiri, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project and the lead attorney in the suit, said, "The whole goal of this program is to provide the full range of services, and the concern is that because of a main contractor's religious beliefs, it will be much more difficult for women to get these services" (Lavoie, AP/Lexington Herald-Leader, 1/12). Amiri said many sex trafficking victims are repeatedly raped or forced into pregnancy as a way of controlling the women. She said that the church should not impose its beliefs about abortion on human trafficking victims who often do not speak English and are unaware of the options available to them in the U.S. "We think this is a blatant violation of the separation of church and state," Amiri said, adding that the federal government "never should have allowed this in the first place."

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesperson for the bishops, said that the federal contract was given to USCCB because it offers an extensive network of services -- including health care, housing and job training -- and that the restrictions on distributing the money are in keeping with the church's religious beliefs. She added that the government "obviously has decided who can best help them address this problem in trafficking" (Boston Globe, 1/13). Walsh also said that USCCB "will continue to provide those services in the contract that are consistent with our belief in the life and dignity of the human person." A spokesperson for HHS said the agency does not comment on pending litigation, according to the AP/Herald-Leader (AP/Lexington Herald-Leader, 1/12).