Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sex Trafficking and the First Amendment

For months now, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and its allies in the contraception and abortion wars have complained that the Obama administration showed anti-Catholic bias when it declined to renew the conference’s contract to aid victims of human trafficking. In fact, the contract was not renewed because the bishops’ group was unwilling to meet the needs of trafficking victims, many of whom have been sexually abused or forced into prostitution.

The group required its subcontractors to agree not to use any federal money they had received to pay for contraceptive and abortion referrals and services. (A federal rule, the Hyde Amendment, bars use of federal money for abortions but makes exceptions for rape, incest and when a woman’s life is endangered.)

A recent decision by a federal district court judge in Boston supplied another good reason for denying the bishops’ group a new contract: respect for the First Amendment. Ruling on a case filed three years ago, Judge Richard Stearns found that the group’s old contract, which expired in October, violated the Constitution’s bar on government establishment of religion because it allowed the bishops to impose religion-based restrictions on the use of taxpayer dollars. “To insist that the government respect the separation of the church and state is not to discriminate against religion,” Judge Stearns wrote. “Indeed, it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others.” The bishops are likely to appeal.

The sound ruling could have implications for the faith-based initiative begun by President George W. Bush and continued under President Obama by calling into question the dubious notion of giving churches and other groups wide latitude to use public money for their religion-based social service programs.

In the meantime, Congressional Republicans should stop obstructing legislation to reauthorize and strengthen the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the federal law central to the fight against human trafficking and slavery that expired at the end of last year.

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