ACLU of Massachusetts v. Sebelius, et al.

In 2009, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for permitting the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to use taxpayer money to impose religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services in the U.S. government's trafficking victims program.

Beginning in 2006, HHS awarded USCCB from $2.5 million to $3.5 million annually to make grants to organizations that provide direct services to trafficking victims under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. HHS did this knowing that USCCB prohibits, based on its religious beliefs, grantees from using any of the federal funds to provide or refer for contraceptive or abortion services, even though the Trafficking Victims Protection Act contains no such restrictions.

On March 23, 2012, Federal Judge Richard G. Stearns ruled that HHS cannot impose religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services for victims of human trafficking, stating, "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..."

USCCB and HHS have appealed the District Court's ruling, and a hearing is scheduled in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on December 5, 2012. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, organizations serving trafficking victims and a number of religious groups--including The Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and Hadassah--have supported the ACLU's position.

In January 2013, the First Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case as moot after the federal government refused to renew USCCB on government contract.

News Releases


First Circuit rules on ACLU challenge to religious restrictions on trafficking victims' program


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


Court allows trafficking victims' lawsuit to continue


ACLU asks Court on Thursday to ensure reproductive health care for women trafficked into the United States



First Circuit Court should defend victims of human trafficking
ACLU of Massachusetts' On Liberty blog


Sex Trafficking and the First Amendment
New York Times


Victory! Court to Bishops: Federal Help for the Most Vulnerable Should Have No Strings Attached
National ACLU Blog of Rights

The Meaning of Religious Freedom
The New York Times

Legal Documents


Reply Brief of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Reply Brief of Federal Government


Amicus - Organizations Serving Trafficking Victims


Amicus brief - Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Amicus brief - Attorney General Martha Coakley


Amicus brief - Gospel Rescue Missions


Amicus brief - Justice and Freedom Fund


District Court Decision


Brief (Case was formerly known as ACLU of Massachusetts v. Leavitt, et al.)