- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 23, 2015

A lawsuit filed this month by The American Civil Liberties Union could force Catholic charities to provide contraception and abortions for illegal immigrants in their care.

The ACLU is demanding government records detailing reproductive healthcare policies for immigrant children and teens in shelters operated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The USCCB has been contracted by the federal government to care for the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S.

The group claims that the USCCB has been denying reproductive care for immigrants based on its religious doctrines and that by doing so the organization is breaking the rules of its contract with the federal government to provide necessary healthcare for immigrants.

The suit has sparked outrage among religious, anti-abortion, and civil rights groups who argue the ACLU is more concerned with bullying the Catholic church than helping vulnerable immigrants.

“Lawsuits like the one the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) just filed demanding all of the records on a faith-based provider of care and services to vulnerable children are destructive and divisive,” said Brian Walsh, president of the Civil Rights Research Center in a statement. “When it comes to religious freedom, some organizations that have had a laudable history of defending Americans’ religious civil rights and liberties are looking less and less like their former selves.”

Legal experts say that despite the contract agreement, federal law protects USCCB’s religious rights and say ACLU’s case aims to strip religion from the public sphere.

“The larger issue — religious liberty — is the constitutional issue of our time,” said Jerad Najvar, founder of Najvar law firm in Houston, Texas. “We are coming to a tipping point in this country. Right now it’s an attempt to sanitize religious principles from religious charities and schools that receive government assistance. Next it will be denying religious freedom to even privately-funded charities that are open to the public. It’s time for Catholics to recognize the trajectory here, and stand up before it’s too late.”

But Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney at ACLU told The Times that group is concerned that by accepting federal money to care for immigrants and then denying them reproductive healthcare the USCCB may be in violation of the Constitutional separation of Church and state.

According to Ms. Amiri the government’s contract with USCCB requires the group to abide by a number of federal laws including a settlement agreement that requires children in the government’s custody to receive access to routine medical services, including family planning services.

ACLU has received complaints that USCCB has been denying reproductive healthcare services, such as abortions, for female immigrants, many of whom suffer sexual assault or rape during their journey to the U.S., Ms. Amiri said.

Almost 60,000 unaccompanied minors illegally crossed the U.S./Mexico borer last year. Nearly a third were young girls and up to 80 percent of those girls were victims of sexual assault. USCCB was awarded a $73 million overall contract and received $10 million in 2013 alone to care for those unaccompanied minors.

“We don’t think that religious organizations should be awarded the contract if they are unable to do the work that is required,” said Ms. Amiri. “Because this contract was to provide day to day care to these teens including medical care, they need to be able to deliver the full range of whats required under the contract. We wouldn’t say its ok in any circumstance for a contractor to say ‘I want the money’ and then not do the work.”

The USCCB said that it has been successfully caring for needy children for years, without providing contraception or abortions and will continue to do so.

“We ensure children and youth have access to ongoing medical and social services. This extensive health care would include, in the case of pregnancy, prenatal, labor/delivery and well-baby care. For decades, we have provided exemplary services to this vulnerable population without facilitating abortions, and despite ACLU’s extreme assertions to the contrary, the law not only permits our doing so, but protects it,” the statement reads.

In a February 2015 letter to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the USCCB, which serves the largest faith-based refugee resettlement organization, wrote that forcing the charities to provide abortion services for immigrants in their care, even by referring pregnant teens to another organization to perform the procedure, would constitute the church facilitating a request that they view as morally wrong and would violate their religious freedoms.

Religious organizations and anti-abortion groups blasted the ACLU for hypocritically targeting the Catholic church for violating human rights while simultaneously supporting groups like Planned parenthood which violates the human rights of unborn children.

“The ACLU is arguing senselessly that because the Catholic Church is a government contractor that provides crucial services to illegal minors, they must also provide abortions for them, which the Church considers a grave moral evil. What about government contractor Planned Parenthood? They have been caught multiple times putting minors in harm’s way by refusing to report rape and child abuse and have been found guilty in double-billing taxpayers for ‘services’ they perform, yet they still receive over $1.4 million per day in taxpayer dollar,” said Kristan Hawkins, President of Students for Life of America

Mark Reinzi, associate professor at the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law told The Times that the ACLU shouldn’t aim to push the Catholic church out of public service and “strip everybody of all the good work that it does,” and added that “the world would be a lot worse place if the ACLU succeeds.”

• Kellan Howell can be reached at khowell@washingtontimes.com.

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