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USCCB Calls ACLU Suit Against Health and Human Services Meritless, Affront to Religious Liberty

WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for awarding an anti-human trafficking contract to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services is without merit and an affront to religious liberty, said Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Migration and Refugee Services.

The ACLU of Massachusetts on January 12 filed the federal lawsuit against HHS, arguing that HHS violates the separation of church and state by not funding abortion and contraception as a part of its provision of services to victims of human trafficking. MRS is a contractor in this program. Bishop Wester's statement follows.

The Catholic Church in the United States -- including the U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services -- offers a network of social services that is second to none. HHS recognized this when it chose MRS to implement efforts to address the evil of human trafficking. MRS has efficiently provided top-quality human services, in cooperation with numerous faith-based and non faith-based agencies. More than 1,100 clients were served between April 2006 and December 30, 2008.

Victims of trafficking -- mostly women and children -- desperately need access to the life-sustaining services provided under the program, such as food, shelter, legal services, coordination with law enforcement, medical screening, mental health care, safety planning, child care, employment assistance, and access to benefits upon eligibility such as refugee public benefits. These services uphold human dignity and the Church is eager to help provide them. The "services" that ACLU would force taxpayers to fund would assault, rather than advance, the dignity of these neediest people in our society. It does not help trafficking victims to disqualify the Church from working with HHS simply because the Church will not provide abortion and contraceptive services. It also violates the longstanding principle of religious liberty to disqualify MRS or any other religious provider of social services from working with the government based on the provider's religious beliefs.

It is ironic that this lawsuit purports to advance religious liberty. This claim is without merit. ACLU's theory is that by declining to fund abortion and contraceptives HHS violates the separation of church and state. But the Supreme Court rejected this same flawed argument almost thirty years ago in Harris v. McRae (1980). The Court noted clearly that a law or policy does not violate "the Establishment Clause because it 'happens to coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions.'" The funding limitation at work in this program is simply one more expression of a common-sense public policy that has been enshrined in federal law for decades -- through Democratic and Republican Congresses and presidential administrations alike.

We hope and expect that the U.S. Department of Justice will mount a vigorous defense against such a meritless lawsuit, particularly one that threatens such harm to the weakest in our society, and to religious liberty.

SOURCE U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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