Skirmish Won in War for Religious Freedom

This column by ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight was published January 25, 2013 on The Washington Times website.

In a victory for religious freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) won't be able to make Catholic agencies fund abortions for sex-trafficking victims after all. A three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a complaint by the ACLU's Massachusetts chapter over federal funding of a program run by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The ACLU had said that funding for the program from the Department of Health and Human Services was an establishment of religion because the bishops' Migration and Refugee Services Department would not provide abortions and contraceptives to foreign-born trafficking victims. In March, U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns agreed.

On Jan. 15, the 1st Circuit panel unanimously ruled that the ACLU complaint was moot since the government contract had expired in October 2011, but the court also vacated Judge Stearns' ruling.

The Massachusetts case is the latest wrinkle in the Obama administration's war on conscience, since Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, on Jan. 20, 2012, ordered all institutions that receive federal health funds to offer insurance covering abortifacients, contraceptives and sterilizations.

Speaking in characteristically Orwellian language, ACLU attorney Brigitte Amiri put the best face on the case after the latest ruling, according to Catholic News Service:

"The upshot of the ACLU's challenge is a victory for victims of human trafficking and for religious liberty," she said. "As a result of this case, the government stopped funneling taxpayer money from the program through the Catholic bishops, who for years had denied medical services to victims of human trafficking based on purely religious grounds."

To translate, what she meant by "medical services" was abortions, abortifacients, contraceptives and sterilizations, all of which are considered sinful by the Catholic Church. What she meant by "a victory for religious liberty" was an obvious initial defeat for religious liberty. When the ACLU attacks religious freedom, they claim they are defending religious freedom. By "religious freedom" they usually mean freedom from religion.

It was just too bad that trafficking victims suddenly found their aid options severely limited. The ACLU's victory in tying up funds was reminiscent of how it ran Catholic Charities out of the adoption business in Massachusetts. The ACLU and homosexual activists had charged that the church's policy of offering adoptions only to married, man-woman couples violated equal protection.

Catholic Charities believes that children deserve to have a mother and a father in the only kind of marriage blessed by God. That makes them monsters. The largest placement service for orphans in Massachusetts closed its operation rather than violate trust by placing children in homosexual households.

For now, the Catholic bishops are free to renegotiate a contract with the federal government to assist trafficking victims, but they were turned down recently in favor of other groups that offer the "full range of reproductive services." The rejection was in keeping with Mrs. Sebelius' order, which gave "nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan until August 1, 2013, to comply with the new law."

This is far from over. More than 40 institutions, including the craft chain Hobby Lobby, have filed challenges. Recently, Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor blocked an emergency injunction for relief for the craft chain, which faces fines of $1.3 million per day for not financing the Plan B ("morning after") or Ella ("week after") drugs for employees while appeals are pending.

On Dec. 18, the D.C. Circuit Court reinstated challenges by Belmont Abbey College and Wheaton College to the contraceptive mandate, and ordered the Obama administration to report every 60 days, beginning in mid-February, on how it is working to protect religious freedom. The D.C. Circuit also ordered the administration to issue a new rule protecting conscience by March 31. In late November, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the 4th U.S. Circuit Court to hear Liberty University's challenge to the employer mandate under Obamacare. Oral arguments could take place this spring.

With all this legal ferment, perhaps the Catholic bishops and others who run faith-based institutions will have more than just a few more months to figure out how to violate their consciences.

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