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March 25, 2012
District Judge Finds Establishment Clause Violation for Trafficking Funding to Catholic Bishops
The opinion in ACLU of Mass. v. Sebelius, by District Judge Richard Stearns of the District of Massachusetts grants summary judgment on behalf of the ACLU in the controversial Catholic Bishops funding case under the TVPA.
At issue is implementation of the TVPA, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, 22 USC §7101-7112 (2000). Congress appropriated funds and directed the Secretary of HHS to “expand benefits and services to victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons in the United States.” HHS first accomplished this by making grants to nonprofit organizations that worked with trafficking victims, but in 2005 decided it would delegate this task to an independent contractor to administer the funds.
Only two organizations bid for the role of “independent contractor,” both of which are religious organizations. The winner of the independent contractor bid was United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). This was despite the USCCB’s frank statement in its proposal that “as we are a Catholic organization, we need to ensure that our victim services are not used to refer or fund activities that would be contrary to our moral convictions and religious beliefs,” and therefore “subcontractors could not provide or refer for abortion services or contraceptive materials for our clients pursuant to this contract.” This statement did raise concerns, and although HHS asked whether USCCB could abide by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to the exception, the USCCB essentially rejected that possibility. It stated it would require an assurance form all subcontractors regarding compliance.
Nevertheless, HHS awarded USCCB the contract, and it was renewed four times, for a total of almost $15 million.
The ACLU sued, arguing that the USCCB contract violated the Establishment Clause, because the government was allowing the USCCB to impose religious restrictions on taxpayer funds. The present secretary of HHS, Sebelius, contended that the ACLU lacked standing, that the case was moot, and that on the merits, there was no Establishment Clause violation.
On standing, the judge rejected the government’s argument that standing was foreclosed by Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011), noting that this case involves an expenditure, and not a tax credit as in Winn.
On the merits, the judge applied the well-known “Lemon test:” First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; Finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” The judge also discussed the endorsement test, rejecting the argument that the endorsement inquiry is not relevant to funding, but only applicable in cases of religious displays. The judge noted that the reproductive limits in the contracting scheme were absolutely linked to religion: “there is no reason to question the sincerity of the USCCB’s position that the restriction it imposed on its subcontractors on the use of TVPA funds for abortion and contraceptive services was motivated by deeply held religious beliefs.” Thus, the government’s delegation of authority to USCCB as an independent contractor provides a significant benefit to religion.
Judge Stearns explicitly addressed the possibility that his opinion would be controversial, especially in light of rhetoric regarding hostility to religion:
“I have no present allegiance to either side of the debate, only a firm conviction that the Establishment Clause is a vital part of the constitutional arrangement envisioned by the Framers, and perhaps a reason we have not been as riven by sectarian disputes as have many other societies.” That conviction remains unshaken. 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.
The case is sure to be appealed.
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