The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been leading the charge against the contraception mandate, but its opposition to the mandate does not represent the USCCB’s first entanglement with contraception lawsuits. ACLU of Massachusetts v. Sebelius involved an Establishment Clause challenge to a grant given to the USCCB pursuant to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The grant was to provide services to victims of sex trafficking, who are often forced into prostitution and forced to endure rape or other sexual abuse. In accepting the grant, the USCCB made very clear that its religious beliefs prevented them from providing contraception or abortion to their clients, or referring them to others who would. (More specifically, the USCCB stated it would bar its subcontractors from providing or referring these services.) Even though access to contraception and abortion are crucial for women and girls who have been sexually trafficked, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) nonetheless awarded the USCCB over $15 million dollars. The ACLU sued, alleging Establishment Clause violations. USCCB responded by claiming that HHS was merely accommodating its sincere religious beliefs. The ACLU won.
Sometimes the line between constitutional accommodation of religious belief and unconstitutional advancement of religion can be hard to draw. Sometimes, however, it is not. HHS should never have awarded the grant. It is true that religious groups may now compete on an equal basis with secular groups for government grants and contracts. But they should also be rejected on an equal basis if they cannot fulfill basic grant requirements. The point of the grant, after all, is to help the intended beneficiaries. Any group, secular or religious, that cannot provide the requisite services, which in this case includes contraception and abortion, is simply not qualified. To accommodate the USCCB at the expense of trafficked sex victims goes too far. At this point, “accommodation devolve[s] into an unlawful fostering of religion.”