In the News 2012
Church & State

Catholic Bishops Shouldn’t Impose Church Doctrines on Publicly Funded Programs, Civil Liberties Groups Tell Federal Court


Earlier this year, The New York Times ran a heart-rending story about a young woman identified as “Lisa.” Born to an alcoholic mother in Washington, D.C., Lisa endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. At age 17, she was lured away by a man who promised to help but who instead prostituted her to men in a string of cheap hotels.

Lisa escaped the pimp and is now receiving help from a group called FAIR Girls. The organization exists in part to shine a spotlight on the disturbing reality of human trafficking.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but national and international law enforcement groups agree that the global sex trade is on the upswing and that some people taking part don’t have a choice. Its victims are mostly young women. In some cases, girls from impoverished countries are promised jobs in the service industry in wealthier nations. They end up being forced into prostitution.

Congress sought to address the issue in 2000 with passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. A rare example of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, the legislation allocated public funds to a variety of programs designed to combat trafficking, which the bill called “a contemporary manifestation of slavery whose victims are predominantly women and children.”

The legislation also included mon¬ey to assist victims. In early 2006, the George W. Bush administration gave a multi-million-dollar grant to the U.S. Conference of Cath¬o¬lic Bishops (USCCB) to oversee all of the federal government’s services under the legislation for women and children who had escaped from forced prostitution and other involuntary labor.

The USCCB in turn announced that it would dole out the money, amounting to $19 million over five years, to smaller organizations around the country. It didn’t get much attention at the time, but the bishops’ directives contained an unusual provision: No organizations could use the federal funds to provide or make referrals for abortion or birth control.

Advocates of women’s rights were vexed by the bishops’ restriction. Victims of trafficking, they argued, had often been raped and needed access to a full range of reproductive health care.

One advocate told Mother Jones mag¬azine, “We’re talking about a group of people [who] have endured rape and no health care, so many of them have untreated infections. Many of them have been exposed to HIV. They’ve had forced abortions. The gynecological issues are horrendous.”

But in an era when “faith-based” initiatives were all the rage and with the Bush administration closely aligned with religious conservatives, nothing changed. Even though many of the groups that accepted the grants were secular, they were not permitted to use program funding to offer contraceptives or abortion-related services or even refer women to groups that did. (In addition, as Mother Jones noted, the bishops failed to administer the funds in an effective manner. They spent about a third of the money on administrative expenses.)

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts sued over the matter, asserting in court papers that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had allowed the Catholic bishops to bend public policy to conform to their theology.

The matter took an unexpected twist in October of 2011, when the USCCB’s grant expired and the Obama administration declined to renew it. But the case continued, and in March of 2012, a federal court ruled in favor of the ACLU.

U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns held that it had been clear all along that the bishops’ conference intended to administer the public funds in a way that conformed to Catholic theology.

Government officials went astray, Stearns said, “insofar as they delegated authority to a religious organization to impose religiously based restrictions on the expenditure of taxpayer funds, and there impliedly en¬dorsed the religious beliefs of the USCCB and the Catholic Church.”

Added Stearns in the ACLU of Massachusetts v. Sebelius decision, “To insist that the government respect the separation of church and state is not to 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.”

The ACLU hailed the ruling.

Said Senior Staff Attorney Brigitte Amiri, “The court is right to insist that organizations receiving government funding cannot use their religion as an excuse to discriminate and withhold crucial services from victims of human trafficking.”

Americans United praised the judge’s decision as well, calling the ruling “a welcome reminder that public policy must never be twisted to meet the dogma of any religious group.”

Stearns’ ruling is now before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Americans United and other advocates of church-state separation have urged the appeals court to uphold the lower court ruling. AU’s Legal Department in late October filed a friend-of-the-court brief focusing on the issue of “standing” – the right to sue.

Keeping the courthouse doors open, AU asserts, is the only way to make certain that public funds are spent in ways that protect the public interest.

“Ensuring that religion is supported privately, not by public funds, was a principal goal of the Founding Fathers…,” observes the Americans United brief. “The arguments made by the appellants here would eviscerate that goal by closing courthouse doors on taxpayers who seek to vindicate it.”

Elsewhere, the brief makes the point that the grant clearly furthered the religious goals of the bishops and is thus of interest to taxpayers.

“Here, by barring the use of program funds for abortion or contraception services, the Catholic Conference imposed its religious beliefs upon a wide range of non-Catholic subcontractors, inducing them to tailor their conduct to Catholic beliefs,” the brief asserts. “What is more, the Catholic Conference used federally funded staff time to monitor and enforce the religious restrictions it placed on the subcontractors.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn called on the court to protect taxpayers’ access to the courts.

“It is an outrage that the federal government has allowed a church group to deny essential public services to hurting people on religious grounds,” Lynn said. “It would compound that outrage if concerned citizens were not allowed to bring this violation into court.”

(The brief was drafted by AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser in consultation with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. In addition to Americans United, the brief was also signed by the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and Had¬as-sah, The Women’s Zionist O¬rg¬ani¬zation of America.)

Ironically, even though the Obama administration did not renew the trafficking grant for the bishops, the U.S. Department of Justice has sided with the USCCB on the matter of standing, arguing that taxpayers should have no right to sue over the matter.

The case is bound to have larger repercussions. In fact, the legal battle over trafficking has already sparked some interesting fallout: It has put the spotlight on an often-overlooked aspect of the Catholic bishops’ agenda of collecting as much taxpayer money as possible while ensuring it comes with very few strings.

Precise figures can be hard to obtain, but most observers agree that Catholic-affiliated groups have long been adept at winning government grants and contracts. In December of 2011, The New York Times reported that Catholic Charities has become especially savvy at tapping the public purse.

“[M]uch of its revenue comes from the government,” Times reporter Laurie Goodstein noted. “Catholic Charities affiliates received a total of nearly $2.9 billion a year from the government in 2010, about 62 percent of its annual revenue of $4.67 billion. Only 3 percent came from churches in the diocese (the rest came from in-kind contributions, investments, program fees and community donations).”

But even as they rake in taxpayer support, the bishops insist that their publicly funded programs comport with church teachings.

Unless a lawsuit is filed or the media puts the spotlight on the issue, Catholic officials can quietly accept millions in tax dollars to run services on behalf of the government in a manner that reflects their theology.

Those who do challenge the church’s demands for public support can find themselves labeled “anti-Catholic.” When the Obama administration decided not to renew the trafficking grant, several arch-con¬¬ser¬va¬¬tives in Congress went ballistic.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform actually held a hearing on the matter, summoning administration officials for a grilling. Several House members insisted that the decision not to renew the grant was driven by anti-Catholic animus, a meme that was picked up by far-right websites and media outlets and was even used to woo Catholic voters before the election.

The hearing – and accompanying manufactured outrage – occurred around the same time that the bishops and their Religious Right allies were accusing the Obama White House of being hostile to religious freedom over a provision in the health care law that requires most employers to allow employees to get no-cost birth control through insurance plans.

Houses of worship are exempt from the mandate, but the bishops demanded a much broader exemption that would cover any employer who had religious objections to contraceptives.

With so much at stake, the bishops have been eager to promote their view in court. They’ve also launched a public relations offensive, arguing that unless the ruling in the Sebelius case is overturned, much “faith-based” funding will be placed in jeopardy.

In a statement issued last year, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, chair of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, warned of dire consequences if the ACLU prevails.

“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 commitments, Catholic or otherwise,” Lori asserted.

The bishops are also furious that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, has publicly opposed them on many health care issues.

When Georgetown University invi¬ted Sebelius to speak at its commencement earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Washington and far-right Cath¬olic groups attacked the school, demanding that she be disinvited. (The speech went ahead as planned, although a few hecklers had to be removed.)

Hardball tactics like this aren’t winning the bishops many converts. Polls show that most Americans, including a majority of Catholics, agree that it makes no sense to leave women’s personal health care decisions in the hands of their employers.

Nor do most Americans buy the bishops’ line that they have a right under religious freedom to deny people access to certain publicly funded services. A poll conducted recently by Catholics for Choice and the ACLU found widespread opposition to basing reproductive health policies on religion.

Of those polled, 81 percent said they agree with the statement, “The law should not allow companies or other institutions to use religious beliefs to decide whether to offer a service to some people and not others.”

The poll also found strong majorities opposed to the idea of denying people access to birth control on religi¬ous grounds – another goal of the bishops. Seventy-seven percent said they oppose allowing pharmacies to do this.

The results highlighted the ongoing disconnect between the Catholic hierarchy and the laity. Catholics in the poll supported access to birth control at the same level as non-Catholics, a finding that has been replicated in other surveys.

The poll did not ask specifically about trafficking, but it’s a safe bet that if Americans oppose giving religious groups the power to curb access to birth control for everyone, they would likely oppose it even more for members of vulnerable populations.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, accused the hierarchy of being out of step with its own flock.

“The bishops are out on a limb here, showing once again that when they speak, they speak for themselves and not the 67 million Catholics in the U.S.,” O’Brien told Church & State. “Catholics do not support the denial of services to people in vulnerable situations. On the contrary, our com¬mit¬ment to social justice means that we go the extra mile in supporting them.”

This article was originally published in Church & State.

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