Court Allows Trafficking Victims' Lawsuit To Continue

A federal court judge ruled Monday that the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit challenging the government's use of taxpayer dollars to impose religious doctrine on victims of human trafficking may go forward.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 23, 2010

CONTACT:
Lorraine Kenny, ACLU National, 212-549-2634, lkenny@aclu.org
Christopher Ott, Communications Director, 617-482-3170 x322, cott@aclum.org

BOSTON -- A federal court judge ruled Monday that the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit challenging the government's use of taxpayer dollars to impose religious doctrine on victims of human trafficking may go forward. U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns rejected the Justice Department's request that he dismiss the case against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), holding that the plaintiff, the ACLU of Massachusetts, met the requirements for bringing this legal challenge.

"It is important that this case go forward. Human trafficking is basically a form of modern-day slavery," said Brigitte Amiri, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "The Trafficking Victims Protection Program's mission is to ensure that trafficking victims can get the help they need, including access to the full range of reproductive health services."

Since April 2006, HHS has awarded the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (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. The ACLU lawsuit asserts that the federal government has misused tax dollars by allowing USCCB to limit the services for which it reimburses other organizations based on its religious beliefs.

Through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the federal government distributes funds to cover an array of services needed by the more than 14,000 individuals, predominantly women, who are brought into the United States annually and exploited for their labor, including in the commercial sex industry. Many trafficking victims experience extreme violence and sexual assault at the hands of their traffickers. Some become pregnant as a result of rape, and some contract sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

In Monday's decision, Judge Stearns noted, "I have no present allegiance to either side of the debate [on taxpayer standing], 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."

In most cases, taxpayers have only a general interest in how tax dollars are spent by the government, and they are not permitted to use the courts to challenge the constitutionality of that spending. But because of the Constitution's special concern with governmental promotion of religion, taxpayers have been allowed to sue in cases such as this one. Judge Stearns ruled that this case fits within the exception and has ordered that the case go forward.

"This is a very important ruling," said Sarah Wunsch, ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney. "We will now be able to look at evidence about why government officials chose the USCCB to run the program, despite knowing that trafficking victims would not get the full range of health services Congress intended."

The case is American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts v. Sebelius (Civ. No. 09-10038), filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Lawyers on the case include Amiri with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project; Daniel Mach and Heather Weaver with the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; Rose A. Saxe with the ACLU AIDS Project; and Wunsch with the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Legal Documents

Judge Stearns' decision

Media

A Ray of Sunshine for Poor Women
Carol Rose (ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director), On Liberty