The author of the nation’s laws to protect human-trafficking victims said Wednesday he supports Catholic bishops in their efforts to overturn a federal judge’s ruling and correct what they view as an “abuse of power” by the Obama administration.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) “has been a dedicated, compassionate, and an extremely effective partner in the efforts to alleviate the suffering of thousands of trafficked victims in the United States,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and author of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The Obama administration recently declined to renew the USCCB’s trafficking-victims grant — which is the subject of a lawsuit — and instead “engaged in what amounts to bid-rigging” by giving the grants to other organizations that scored lower in contract reviews, said Mr. Smith.
The issue has been in federal court since 2009, when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts sued the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for impermissibly allowing the USCCB to “impose” its beliefs on the trafficking victims it served.
The USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services, which received about $16 million during its five-year HHS contract, does not directly or indirectly provide abortions and contraception to trafficking victims, including those involved in sexual abuse.
On March 23, U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns in Massachusetts ruled that HHS had unconstitutionally allowed “a religious organization to impose religiously based restrictions on the expenditure of taxpayer funds.” This implied that HHS “endorsed the religious beliefs of the USCCB and the Catholic Church,” he wrote.
ACLU hailed the ruling, noting that many trafficking victims are women who have been forced into prostitution and need access to health care, including abortion, contraception and condoms.
“While the Catholic bishops are entitled to their beliefs, freedom of religion does not mean the bishops get to impose their doctrines on others with the use of taxpayer dollars,” said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts.
On Tuesday, the USCCB said it would appeal Judge Stearns’ “poorly reasoned” and “dangerous” ruling.
The decision ignores Supreme Court precedents, including Justice William O. Douglas’ observation that when government acts to accommodate religion, “it follows the best of our traditions,” said the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, led by the Most Rev. William E. Lori, archbishop-elect of Baltimore.
Also, if Judge Stearns’ ruling is allowed to stand, it threatens “all faith-based service providers, because the court’s novel rule severely restricts the ability of government to accommodate any contractor’s religious commitments, Catholic or otherwise,” the bishops said.
The ruling is “an egregious attack on religious freedom and conscience and does a tragic disservice to trafficking victims,” Mr. Smith said. When the Obama administration’s HHS awarded the new grants to lower-scoring organizations instead of the USCCB, that “can only be described as an unconscionable abuse of power,” he said.