(CNSNews.com) -- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has refused to renew a $2.5-million grant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help human trafficking victims, and the USCCB believes the reason is because, in keeping with Catholic teaching, it will not offer women artificial contraceptives, sterilizations or abortions.
“The USCCB feels that this was unfair and wants to know how this decision was made, so [the bishops] are in the process of requesting that information now,” Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told CNSNews.com.
Walsh said the HHS did not explain why it turned down the Catholic Church’s application, but that in accepting bids to provide services for victims of human trafficking, the HHS funding announcement stated that it would give “preference” to grantees that offer victims a referral to medical providers who do provide abortion and family planning services.
“The contract pointed out that ‘preference’ would be given to those who offer ‘the full-range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care,’ which is a codeword for artificial contraception, sterilization and abortion,” Walsh told CNSNews.com.
Walsh pointed out that the funding announcement did not state that faith-based organizations would be excluded, but rather, she said, “required an explanation of the limits of services provided by an organization with an estimated impact and a plan for mitigating the impact.”
Walsh said the USCCB explained in its application that its Migrant and Refugee Services (MRS) section had worked with 163 organizations ranging from the Salvation Army to the YMCA to Lutheran family service to help more than 2,700 victims.
The Catholic Church does refer clients to other groups for many services related to reproductive health, which do not violate Catholic teaching, Walsh said, including screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), gynecological health, obstetrics and pre-natal care.
There are only three specific procedures not provided: abortion, artificial contraception and sterilization.
Walsh said that the MRS pointed out in its application that over the past 5 years it has not seen clients negatively impacted by this policy, and it projected that it would not impact future clients.
Approximately $4.7 million in funding went to three agencies: $1,095,711 to an Atlanta-based group called Tapestri; $1,020,250 to Heartland Human Care Services of Chicago; and $2,589,125 to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Washington, D.C.
“The Services to Victims of Human Trafficking contract held by USCCB did expire as scheduled on October 10th, 2011. The USCCB continues to be a grantee for a number of ORR programs that support refugees and children,” HHS spokesman Jesse Moore said in a statement.
“The case management services formerly provided through the Services to Victims of Human Trafficking contract are no longer being provided by a contractor,” read the statement. “Instead, grantees, who were selected through a commonly used competitive grant process, are providing case management services under the National Human Trafficking Victim Assistance Program.”
“HHS’s primary focus in serving victims of human trafficking is to keep them as healthy and supported as possible,” the statement said. “These are individuals who have endured traumatic experiences in many cases and who face uniquely complex challenges. Our focus is always on the needs of victims, and ensuring that they have access to high-quality comprehensive case management services.”
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the federal government distributes money for services needed by thousands of women, children and men who have been brought into the United States for forced labor, especially those forced into prostitution.
Walsh said the USCCB has advocated on behalf of victims of trafficking since the late 1990s, even before the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000.
This has included working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the FBI, the Department of Justice and other partners to improve the nation’s response to this crime and provide better screening and treatment of victims, she said.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts have gone to federal court in Boston arguing that HHS must be prohibited from imposing “religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services” for victims of sex trafficking.
The ACLU filed suit in 2009 against HHS over its partnership with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
"Human trafficking is the modern-day equivalent of slavery,” Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts said in a recent statement.
“Taxpayer funds should not be given to organizations that withhold vital services from vulnerable victims based on religious doctrine – that is a blatant violation of the separation between church and state,” she said.
The liberal legal group added: “Although HHS did not renew USCCB’s contract this year, the ACLU seeks a judgment to ensure that taxpayer dollars are never misused to impose religious restrictions on vulnerable trafficking victims that receive U.S. aid.”
But the Catholic bishops say that requiring referral for abortion services as a precondition of obtaining government money is not allowable under current law, Walsh said.
“First of all, we would question that that is even legal to do that, because there are three amendments – the Church amendment, Coats-Snowe and the Weldon amendment – that all say you can’t do that,” Sister Walsh said. “It violates religious freedom.”
The 1973 Church amendment, sponsored by then-Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), says that public officials may not require individuals or entities who receive public funds to perform abortion or sterilization procedures or to “make facilities or personnel available for the performance of such procedures if such performance would be contrary to [the individual or entity’s] religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
The 1996 Coats-Snowe amendment -- offered by Sens. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) -- bars government discrimination against a health-care training program or other “health-care entity” for refusing to perform or train in the performance of abortions.
Under the 2005 amendment sponsored by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), an extension of the 1980s-era Hyde Amendment, a “physician or other health care professional, a hospital, a provider-sponsored organization, a health maintenance organization, a health insurance plan, or any other kind of health care facility” may refuse abortions, counseling, or referrals, even in cases of rape, incest, or medical emergency.
The Catholic Church has received an estimated $20 million to administer human trafficking assistance over the last decade.