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WASHINGTON—The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) filed a notice of appeal April 17, asking a federal appeals court to vacate a decision by a Massachusetts federal judge declaring that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) violated the First Amendment in its contract with USCCB to provide case management services to victims of human trafficking, because the contract did not require USCCB to facilitate abortion and contraception.USCCB has also requested a stay of the lower court’s decision until the appeals court can rule.
The decision came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against HHS in 2009. USCCB joined the lawsuit in mid-2010 on the side of HHS as a defendant-intervenor.
For five years ending last fall, MRS had successfully implemented a national government contract that helped men, women and children recover from the effects of human trafficking as victims of forced labor and the sex trade. Neither the statute authorizing the government funds, nor the request for contract proposals from potential providers like USCCB, required the provider to faciliate abortion or contraception funding; and no trafficking victim complained for lack of government funding of these things under the contract.
Archbishop-elect William E. Lori of Baltimore, chair of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, and Archbishop Josė Gomez of Los Angeles, chair of the Bishops’ Committee on Migration, noted the rationale for the appeal in an April 17 statement.
Their statement follows.
“The Conference has decided, with a great sense of urgency, to appeal the district court decision in ACLU v. Sebelius for two reasons:it is poorly reasoned, and it is dangerous.
“First, the decision takes restrictive Supreme Court precedents and stretches them, almost beyond recognition, to encompass the facts of our case; and at the same time, the decision all but ignores generous Supreme Court precedents that are squarely on point.Justice William O. Douglas famously noted long ago that when the government acts to accommodate religion, ‘it follows the best of our traditions.’This decision says and does the opposite.
“Second, if this precedent is allowed to stand—or worse, to find broader application—it would have a devastating practical impact.Immediately, it endangers the ability of our Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) to continue to provide, in cooperation with HHS or other agencies of the federal government, exemplary service to victims of human trafficking and others in great need.But if the rationale of this decision spreads, dozens of Catholic organizations across the country that cooperate on similar terms with government agencies at all levels—federal, state, and local—will have their work similarly threatened.
“Indeed, all faith-based service providers are threatened, because the court’s novel rule severely restricts the ability of government to accommodate any contractor’s religious commitments, Catholic or otherwise.The people most in need of human services—the poor, the sick, the marginalized—would suffer the most from such a broad exclusion of faith-based providers from cooperation with government.
“We ask for the prayers of the faithful in support of this ongoing effort to defend our first freedom, religious liberty.”
Keywords: Health and Human Services, HHS, trafficking, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB, abortion, contraception, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, Archbishop-elect William E. Lori, Archbishop Josė Gomez, Committee on Migration, Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, Kathleen Sebelius, Justice William O. Douglas
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