Bishops Lose Obama Anti-Sex Trafficking Grant Over Abortion

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Oct 12, 2011   |   1:41PM   |   Washington, DC

The nation’s Catholic bishops have lost a grant the federal government previous gave them for efforts to stop sex trafficking and they are concerned it is because they disagree with President Barack Obama over abortion.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had previously received a five-year $19 million grant to help victims of sex trafficking during the administration of pro-life President George W. Bush. Sensitive to how women are exploited in the sex industry, the Catholic bishops prohibit any subcontractors from using the funds to pay for or promote abortions. Instead, the Catholic bishops provide comprehensive case management services to survivors including medical and mental health services.

While the Obama administration extended the contract briefly in March, the bishops were recently notified that it would not be renewed. Instead, Obama officials awarded the grant to three other groups (Tapestri of Atlanta, Heartland Human Care Services of Chicago and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants of Washington) — even though the bishops have helped more than 2,700 victims with the funding.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Bishops, told Bloomberg News she worries the decision to pull the grant was made because the bishops are pro-life and strenuously disagree with Obama and the administration over abortion.

“We hope our religious beliefs didn’t come into play,” she said. “Abortion politics will not find homes for minors being sold into sex slavery.”

Marrianne McMullen, of the Administration for Children and Families, a division of HHS, would not tell Bloomberg whether abortion played a role in sending the grant elsewhere.

“HHS’s primary focus in serving victims of human trafficking is ensuring that they have access to the high quality and comprehensive case management services they need,” she said. “These are individuals who have endured traumatic experiences in many cases and who face uniquely complex challenges.”

But the ACLU, which filed a lawsuit in 2009 against the contract, saying it was unconstitutional because the bishops would not refer pregnant sex-trafficking victims for abortions, applauded the Obama administration decision to deny the grant. Brigitte Amiri, an ACLU lawyer, told Bloomberg: “We applaud the federal government for recognizing that trafficking victims need reproductive-health series and making awards based on those needs. This has little to do with religion and everything to do with what the trafficking victims need.”

The news services indicates the ACLU won the first round of the lawsuit, with a judge ruling the suit can proceed and scheduling oral arguments in the case for October 18.

In September 2009, the bishops said the ACLU lawsuit is “without merit and an affront to religious liberty.”

Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Migration and Refugee Services, said the ACLU would only further exploit women by making the USCCB work with abortion businesses.

“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,” Wester explained.

“The ‘services’ that ACLU would force taxpayers to fund would assault, rather than advance, the dignity of these neediest people in our society,” he added.

Wester told that the lawsuit would hurt, not help, trafficking victims and would violate the First Amendment religious liberty rights of the USCCB.

“It does not help trafficking victims to disqualify the Church from working with HHS simply because the Church will not provide abortion,” Wester said. “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.”

Wester said he expects the courts to side with the USCCB and cited the 1980 Harris v. McRae case that allowed the federal government to decline to pay for abortions for poor women.