Saturday, March 24, 2012

Allowing Bishops To Limit Uses of Trafficking Victims Act Funds Violates Establishment Clause

In American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts v. Sebelius, (D MA, March 23, 2012), a Massachusetts federal district court held that the Department of Health and Human Services violated the Establishment Clause when, in selecting the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops to administer funds under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, it permitted USCCB to impose religious restrictions on use of grant funds. The Bishops prohibited grantee subcontractors from using grant funds to refer trafficking victims for abortion services or contraceptive materials. After concluding that plaintiffs had standing and that the case was not moot despite the fact that the HHS contract with USCCB had expired, the court found Establishment Clause problems with the arrangements.  Permitting USCCB to place a religiously motivated restriction in contracts with grantees amounts to a governmental endorsement of a religious belief. HHS, in delegating to a religious organization the authority to exclude certain services from government funding provides a significant symbolic benefit to religion.  Religion Dispatches reports on the decision. (See prior related posting.)