U.S. Catholic contract unconstitutional: ACLU suit

BOSTON Mon Jan 12, 2009 4:35pm EST

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BOSTON (Reuters) - A U.S. civil liberties group sued the federal government Monday, charging it violated the Constitution by contracting a Roman Catholic entity to help victims of human trafficking.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was imposing its beliefs on victims of human trafficking by not allowing federal grant money to be used for contraception or abortion.

When the bishops applied for the contracts, they said they would not work with subcontractors who provided abortion services or contraceptives, such as condoms, which conflict with Catholic teachings, according to the ACLU.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston said the Department of Health and Human Services violated the separation of church and state by giving the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops $6 million in grants from 2006 through 2008.

Many women victims of human trafficking are forced to work as prostitutes, and face a high risk of assault and rape, the ACLU said in court papers.

The Department of Health and Human Services permitted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "to impose its own religiously based substantive restrictions on the use of grant funds," the ACLU argued.

The suit asks the court to stop the department from allowing its grants being spent in a way that is restricted by religious beliefs.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the bishops' conference said the $6 million figure cited in the suit was the full amount authorized. But "far less" money had been appropriated, she said without giving a figure.

"The problem of trafficking in this country is huge and serious and the Catholic Church has the best network of services bar none," she said. "Going to the Catholic Church for social services is very logical."

Representatives of the Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

(Editing by Jason Szep and Mohammad Zargham)

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