By Michelle Bauman
The Obama administration has cut funding for the U.S. bishops’ campaign against human trafficking, which had been challenged by the ACLU for avoiding contraception and abortion.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said there was “no reason given” by the Department of Health and Human Services, for rejecting the conference’s application for a new grant at the end of September.
She said the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services work had previously been “well regarded.”
However, in a Sept. 29 letter to the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan had warned that the administration was “requiring that Migration and Refugee Services provide the ‘full range of reproductive services’ to trafficking victims and unaccompanied minors in its cooperative agreements and government contracts.”
The U.S. bishops’ conference president indicated that the “full range of reproductive services” was a veiled reference to contraception and abortion. He stated that this new federal requirement followed “exactly the position urged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the ongoing lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of MRS’s contracts.”
In its written instructions to groups requesting grants through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Department of Health and Human Services states that “strong preference” will be given to organizations that offer referrals for the “full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”
Sr. Walsh explained that Migration and Refugee Services could have been denied funding under those instructions because of the Church’s opposition to abortion and contraception.
In a 2009 lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts claimed that the contract with the Catholic bishops was unconstitutional because the group would not aid or refer individuals for services that violate Church teaching.
The lawsuit is still pending, with oral arguments in federal court scheduled for Oct. 18.
Sr. Walsh, however, said that in six years of providing food, clothing and medical care to human trafficking victims, Migration and Refugee Services has been “very well received,” and was “seen as one of the best programs.”
The organization has served more than 2,700 people since 2006, when it entered a five-year contract to offer services with a federal grant. After a brief extension, the contract ended Oct. 10.
Sr. Walsh said the bishops are “concerned” about the situation.
Freedom of conscience for religious organizations has become a heated topic in recent months, after the Department of Health and Human Services released regulations that would require the coverage of contraception in most new health insurance plans.
In his Sept. 29 letter establishing a new committee on religious freedom, Archbishop Dolan told the U.S. bishops that believers’ rights were “increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in America” from an “assault which now appears to grow at an ever accelerating pace in ways most of us could never have imagined.”
The Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to CNA/EWTN News’ inquiry about the de-funding of the bishops’ refugee program.