On Wednesday the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts went before a federal appellate court to argue that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can’t impose religiously-based restrictions on reproductive health services for victims of human trafficking.
The arguments were in the case of ACLU of Massachusetts v. Sebelius, a challenge to HHS’ distribution of program funds authorized by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The Trafficking Victims Protection Act provides funds to cover an array of services needed by thousands of individuals, many of whom are women, who are brought into the United States annually and exploited for their labor, including sex trafficking who are raped and abused. Pregnancies as a result of rape and sexually transmitted infections are common among victims of sex trafficking which makes access to testing and treatment of STIs, contraception, and safe abortion care critical for many trafficking victims.
From April 2006 to October 2011, (HHS) has awarded the USCCB anywhere from $2.5 million to $4 million annually to fund organizations that provide direct services to trafficking victims under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. According to the ACLU, HHS does this knowing that based on its religious beliefs, the USCCB prohibits grantees from using any of the federal funds to provide or refer for reproductive health services of any kind.
In January 2009, the ACLU asked a federal court in Massachusetts to require HHS to ensure that taxpayer funds distributed through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act are not used to impose religiously-based restrictions on reproductive health services. In March 2012, the court granted that request and ruled that a religious institution does not have the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others. The bishops and the federal government’s appealed to the First Circuit.
It’s an unusual position for the Obama administration to be, as it is, on the same side of the Bishops in this case, with the exception of one key point. In its briefing the government made it clear that it was not making a religious accommodation by awarding the contracts to the USCCB because, the government claims, it simply chose the best bidder for the contract and that the USCCB conscience objections are simply the price it must pay to have these funds distributed and services provided.
“We’re hopeful the appellate court with affirm the district courts holding that we cant allow the government to deny services to a vulnerable population in the name of religious beliefs” Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project told RH Reality Check.
A ruling in the case is not expected for several months.