ACLU challenges religious restrictions on government-funded trafficking victims' program

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 18, 2011

CONTACT:
Robyn Shepherd, ACLU national, (212) 519-7829 or 549-2666; media@aclu.org
Christopher Ott, ACLU of Massachusetts, (617) 482-3170 x322; cott@aclum.org

BOSTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts argued in federal court today that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must be prohibited from imposing religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services for victims of sex trafficking.

The ACLU challenged HHS' distribution of program funds authorized by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Until recently, USCCB subcontracted with organizations that provide services to trafficking victims, but prohibited subcontractors from using any federal funds to provide or refer for contraception, condoms, and abortion care solely because of USCCB's religious beliefs. Since many trafficking victims have been raped by the traffickers and forced into prostitution, these services are vital.

Through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the federal government distributes funds to cover an array of services needed by thousands of individuals who are brought into the United States every year and exploited for their labor, including being forced into the commercial sex industry. Many trafficking victims experience extreme violence and sexual assault at the hands of their traffickers.

Although HHS did not renew USCCB's contract this year, the ACLU seeks a judgment to ensure that taxpayer dollars are never misused to impose religious restrictions on vulnerable trafficking victims that receive U.S. aid.

"Victims of human trafficking are often forced into horrific circumstances beyond their control," said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "It is the government's responsibility to ensure that they be provided with the full range of services, including reproductive health care, they need to recover from their ordeal and live safe and healthy lives."

"Human trafficking is the modern-day equivalent of slavery," said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. "Taxpayer funds should not be given to organizations that withhold vital services from vulnerable victims based on religious doctrine--that is a blatant violation of the separation between church and state."

More information on this case can be found here.