Analysis

Bogus church-state ruling defunds bishops’ aid to sex-trafficking victims

As if we didn’t have enough on our plate with the battle over forced contraception coverage, the Obama administration is currently embroiled in another religious fight, this time with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over federal aid money for sex-trafficking victims.

As if we didn’t have enough on our plate with the battle over forced contraception coverage, the Obama administration is currently embroiled in another religious fight, this time with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over federal aid money for sex-trafficking victims.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act provides money to fund medical and mental health services for victims of sex trafficking, and since 2006, the bishops have been allowed to limit the money they receive to contractors who are uninvolved in abortion. But in its infinite wisdom and compassion, the current administration has decided to revoke the bishops’ grant money entirely rather than keep funding their charitable work. Now a federal judge has ruled against the bishops:

Although the nation’s Catholic bishops said the ACLU lawsuit is “without merit and an affront to religious liberty,” U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns ruled on March 23 that the government’s accommodation of the decision not to make abortion referrals is unconstitutional. Stearns, a Massachusetts judge, said the government violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment “insofar as they delegated authority to a religious organization to impose religiously based restrictions on the expenditure of taxpayer funds, and thereby impliedly endorsed the religious beliefs of the USCCB and the Catholic Church.”

Stearns also said is not about forcing the bishops to violate their pro-life views but about “the limits of the government’s ability to delegate to a religious institution the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others (who may or may not share them).”

As a matter of policy, HHS’s decision is indefensible. It’s disgusting enough when the government funds abortion directly, but to throw out all of an organization’s charitable work, which is achieving the stated goal of helping sex-trafficking victims, simply because that organization’s members don’t want to be complicit in abortion? For a moment, take abortion out of the equation and ask yourself if it makes sense to just throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ask yourself why every charity has to fit the exact same mold, rather than do its part in the unique ways it’s best suited to. Ask yourself what HHS’s real priority is: healing or abortion.

As a matter of law, Judge Stearns’ ruling borders on parody. For one thing, the bishops can’t possibly be “imposing” their anti-abortion views on anyone simply because they have no authority to prohibit abortion. They won’t refer women to abortion clinics, but that hardly keeps women from seeking them or punishes them for aborting.

Further, the First Amendment forbids Congress from “establish[ing] religion” – from creating or endorsing an official national religion to which Americans would legally owe their allegiance and tax dollars – or abridging the “free exercise” of religion. That’s it. The bishops declining to fund abortion in their work in no way violated either requirement. Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett explains:

This is the wooliest of wooly-headed reasoning. For starters, it would not violate the Establishment Clause for the government to decide its human-trafficking funds should not be used, by anyone, to pay for abortion- and contraception-related counseling. To understate the matter, the government is not required to subsidize or support abortions, and opposition to abortion is no more suspect because many religious believers oppose it than opposition to human trafficking is suspect because many religious believers oppose it.

Next, it is not the case that the religion-inspired policies and practices of institutions that receive public funds somehow become, for constitutional purposes, the government’s own policies. If Judge Stearns were right (and he certainly is not), then it is unconstitutional for a Catholic school that receives some special-education-related or school-lunch funding for low-income students to have morning chapel or First Communion classes.

For all intents and purposes, Stearns’ logic completely reverses the meaning of the First Amendment: what was meant to protect the faithful from government coercion instead compels them to violate their faith, lest they be blamed for violating the Amendment by choosing not to take certain actions!

Perhaps most offensive, though, is the implication that denying abortion funding is impermissible because opposition to abortion is intrinsically theological. What nonsense – abortion is opposed because it’s fatal to innocent babies and harmful to their mothers. That abortion also happens to violate Catholic doctrine is legally irrelevant. Or are laws against murder and theft unconstitutional for being motivated by the Ten Commandments?

The White House’s hostility to religious liberty is scary enough, but the fact that legal charlatans like Richard Stearns wield so much power over the people is downright terrifying. For the sake of Americans born and unborn alike, a widespread re-education in the true principles of the Constitution is desperately overdue.

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