Court prohibits religious restrictions on government-funded trafficking victims' program

ACLU challenged distribution of funds with prohibition on use for contraceptive and abortion referrals and services.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Robyn Shepherd, ACLU national, (917) 302-7189 or 549-2666;
Christopher Ott, ACLU of Massachusetts communications director, 617-482-3170 x322,

BOSTON -- A federal judge ruled late yesterday that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) cannot impose religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services for victims of human trafficking.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts challenged HHS' distribution of funds connected to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) because the organization prohibited these funds from being used to pay for contraceptive and abortion referrals and services.

Until recently, USCCB subcontracted with organizations that aided trafficking victims, but banned them from using any federal funds to provide or refer for contraception, condoms and abortion care. Since many trafficking victims have been raped by the traffickers and forced into prostitution, these services are vital.

"The court is right to insist that organizations receiving government funding cannot use their religion as an excuse to discriminate and withhold crucial services from victims of human trafficking," said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "The court's decision ensures that people who have been forced into horrific circumstances will have access to all necessary services--including reproductive health care--to rebuild their lives."

The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act funds an array of services for thousands of people brought into the United States annually, often being forced into the commercial sex trade. Many suffer extreme violence and sexual assault at the hands of traffickers, and risk contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

"Federal law calls for a full range of health care to be provided to the victims of human trafficking," said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. "While the Catholic Bishops are entitled to their beliefs, freedom of religion does not mean the Bishops get to impose their doctrines on others with the use of taxpayer dollars."

In his ruling in ACLU of Massachusetts v. Kathleen Sebelius et al., Judge Richard G. Stearns stated: "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…"

"This case is about the limits of the government's ability to delegate to a religious institution the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others (who may or may not share them)."

Although HHS did not renew USCCB's contract this year, the ACLU continued with the case to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not misused to impose religious restrictions on vulnerable trafficking victims that receive U.S. aid.

For a copy of the decision, see:

More information on this case can be found at: