Ruling that stops taxpayer funding of Catholic beliefs to be appealed
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) are appealing a recent federal court ruling that found unconstitutional the government authorization and funding of their religious-based restriction on services to help sex trafficking victims. Congress appropriated up to $10 million for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to carry out the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s purpose of providing services to victims of human trafficking. Despite the warning in its proposal stating the USCCB would not allow the government money to “provide or refer for abortion services or contraceptive materials for our clients,” the HHS selected the USCCB as general contractor to administer these funds. As of June 2010, the government awarded the USCCB over $15.9 million.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU) filed suit against the HHS for violating the First Amendment by allowing the USCCB to “impose a religiously based restriction on the disbursement of taxpayer-funded services.” The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from suggesting that a particular religious belief is favored or preferred. The ACLU argued the government appeared to endorse a Catholic belief by authorizing the USCCB’s religiously motivated restriction on reproductive services that beneficiaries of the TVPA program would otherwise have received.
The USCCB disagreed, arguing the government’s acceptance of their restriction was an accommodation of their religious belief, not an endorsement. The government is allowed to accommodate religion to remove burdens on free exercise of religion. There is no question USCCB’s restriction was motivated by deeply held religious beliefs, but this is not a burden on free exercise of religion because there is no legal obligation mandating the USCCB provide abortion or contraceptive services. If the sincerely held religious beliefs of the USCCB do not allow them to fulfill the requirements of this government contract, they are free to not take the money. This is about the government authorizing the use of taxpayer money by a religious institution to impose its beliefs on others.
Still, the USCCB cries this ruling is discrimination against religion. Demanding the government respect the separation of church and state does not discriminate against religion. It respects religion by refusing to favor any one faith over another. In a statement about their decision to appeal the ruling the Archbisops William E. Lori and Jose Gomez quoted Justice William O. Douglas that “when government acts to accommodate religion ‘it follows the best of our traditions.’” In the same case where he wrote those words, the Justice also wrote “there cannot be the slightest doubt that the First Amendment reflects the philosophy that Church and State should be separated. And so far as interference with the ‘free exercise’ of religion and an ‘establishment’ of religion are concerned, the separation must be complete and unequivocal.”1 The well reason ruling of Judge Sterns in this case upholds the First Amendment and should withstand this latest challenge.
1. Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 312 (1952)