What's One Thing the Government Shouldn't Do to Human Trafficking Victims?

sad woman sitting alone
sad woman sitting alone

If you are an organization that has the privilege and responsibility of caring for human trafficking survivors who have suffered some of the worst imaginable conditions, one thing you definitely shouldn't do is deny them medical care because of your religious beliefs.

And if you're our government, which provides taxpayer dollars to these organizations, you shouldn't give a religious organization millions of dollars if they refuse to provide access to reproductive health care, especially when a federal court told you not to, and you promised you wouldn't do so.

But, alas, the government has broken its promise, and that broken promise could harm trafficking victims.

In 2012, in a case brought by the ACLU, a federal district court held that the government violated the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state when it awarded a multi-million dollar federal contract to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to provide services to trafficking victims in the United States. The fact that the government contracted with a religious organization wasn't the problem. Rather, the violation of the establishment clause arose because the government allowed the bishops to prohibit its subcontractors -- most of which were secular nonprofit organizations -- from referring for or providing funding for contraception or abortion because of the bishop's religious beliefs.

In its ruling, the district court recognized the unsurprising fact that trafficking survivors need access to contraception and abortion. Trafficking victims endure the most horrific conditions imaginable, and often experience sexual assault. When they escape their trafficker, they need a host of services to help them rebuild their lives -- housing, job training, and medical care. Access to reproductive health -- including contraception and abortion -- is critical to their ability to attain self-sufficiency.

Our case took a turn, however, when the government ended its contract with the bishops and instead awarded the contract to organizations that would allow the full range of care to be provided to trafficking survivors. In funding these new organizations, the government itself acknowledged the importance of access to reproductive health care for trafficking survivors. Indeed, the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) said:

Taking into consideration the particular health risks posed to victims of trafficking, preference will be given to grantees under this FOA that will offer all victims referral to medical providers who can provide or refer for provision of treatment for sexually transmitted infections, family planning services and the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care, including but not limited to exams, tests and pre-natal services and non-directive health-related counseling.

After the government awarded the contract to three new organizations under these terms, the government argued that our case was moot. The government repeatedly said in court that it did not intend to award the bishops the trafficking contract for the foreseeable future. We countered by saying that the bishops routinely restrict access to reproductive health care for vulnerable populations, so the issue is likely to come up again. The appeals court accepted the government's promise and found our case moot and dismissed it.

Fast forward three years later, and unfortunately our predictions came true.

The government has once again awarded a $2 million contract to the bishops to provide services to trafficking victims. How could the government possibly agree to give the grant to the bishops once again to the detriment of trafficking survivors, and likely in violation of the Constitution? We are demanding answers. That's why we have filed a lawsuit today under the Freedom of Information Act.

We can't imagine what has changed in the last three years. We know the bishops prohibit all of its employees and subcontractors from referring human trafficking survivors for abortion or contraception care, even if the woman has been raped. It's precisely the same issue that we are investigating in the context of unaccompanied immigrant minors. These are teens that have crossed the border into the U.S. on their own, often fleeing abuse or violence in their home countries, and are awaiting deportation, asylum, or reunification with family members. The U.S. contracts with several organizations to provide these minors with day-to-day care, including USCCB, which receives millions of taxpayer dollars. In this context, too, the bishops refuse to follow the law and allow these minors access to contraception and abortion, despite the fact that many experience sexual assault during their journey to the U.S.

The bishops are certainly entitled to their religious beliefs. Religious liberty is a fundamental value, and one that we fight for every day at the ACLU. But religion cannot be used to harm others or discriminate against them. The district judge put it very eloquently:

To insist that the government respect the separation of church and state is not to discriminate against religion; indeed, it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others.

And, in this case, it also promotes a respect for the most vulnerable, who have survived the unimaginable and who will be harmed again without access to comprehensive health care.