- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2019

A Catholic charity has sued California for blocking the opening of its refuge for sex-trafficking victims, saying the state would not license the shelter because of the charity’s religious beliefs.

State regulators put the kibosh on Children of the Immaculate Heart’s shelter because it refused to promote LGBTQ events, facilitate abortions or provide transgender hormones, according to the lawsuit.

The charity’s application to open a shelter for women who escape sex trafficking has been held up for more than 16 months, despite San Diego County — where the shelter would be located — facing a crisis of more than 5,000 victims forced into the sex trade annually, according to court documents.

The state agency regulating California’s foster care denied a license because it found the group’s Catholic faith “offensive,” according to a 36-page complaint filed this week in state court.

“State bureaucrats have resolved to advance an anti-Catholic agenda rather than rescue young girls enslaved in sex trafficking,” the lawsuit said.

State officials want the charity to agree to promote LGBTQ events for the victims and agree to drive them to abortion facilities when warranted, according to Children of the Immaculate Heart.

The group also said it would be required to give transgender hormone care to youth to meet state requirements.

The charity argues that these demands run afoul of the faith-based organization’s religious views, violating its right to free speech and religious liberty under the California Constitution.

The charity’s shelter has been empty for about two years and has cost Children of the Immaculate Heart $15,000 per month to maintain it.

“Hundreds of teenage girls continue to be pimped out in our county every night. Yet, the state of California considers prohibiting Children of the Immaculate Heart’s free exercise of religion and freedom of speech more important than helping these girls escape a living hell of being raped up to 10 times a day,” said Grace Williams, founder of Children of the Immaculate Heart.

Ms. Williams, who originally wanted to be a nun but redirected her faith into a mission against sex trafficking, opened the charity in 2013. Her first client was a 26-year-old mother of four. The charity housed, clothed and fed her.

Adam Weintraub, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, said the agency has not reviewed the complaint and can’t comment on litigation.

“The department enforces licensing of residential facilities in accordance with the law,” Mr. Weintraub told The Washington Times.

Lawyers representing the charity expect a hearing in the next few weeks. They have asked the court for a jury trial and an injunction against the state from discriminating against the Children of the Immaculate Heart based on religion.

“Right now, a desperately needed rescue home for sex-trafficked girls sits empty because the government refuses to license a care provider with Catholic beliefs,” said Paul Jonna, a lawyer with the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund.

“Every child who is at risk of sex trafficking deserves a safe place with loving caretakers. Charitable agencies that help rescue children from sex trafficking should be protected, not excluded for their faith,” Mr. Jonna said.

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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