Trafficking Jam: Catholic Bishops Shouldn't Impose Church Doctrines on Publicly Funded Programs, Civil Liberties Groups Tell Federal Court
Boston, Rob, Church & State
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 money to assist victims. In early 2006, the George W. Bush administration gave a multi-million-dollar grant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic 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 magazine, "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 endorsed the religious beliefs of the USCCB and the Catholic Church. …