Massachusetts Judge Rejects Bishops’ Conscience Exemption

In a decision handed down Friday, a district court in Massachusetts held that the Department of Health and Human Services was wrong to allow the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops to impose religious restrictions on disbursement of federal funds. The program provided assistance to victims of human trafficking but the HHS allowed the bishops to prohibit its subcontractors from referring victims to contraceptive or abortion services.

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Judge Richard G. Stearns hit the nail on the head:

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.

Here… the government defendants’ delegation of authority to the USCCB to exclude certain services from government funding “provides a significant symbolic benefit to religion,” in violation of the Establishment Clause.

In conclusion, he held that HHS had “impliedly endorsed the religious beliefs of the USCCB and the Catholic Church” through its practice of allowing USCCB to prohibit the 100+ subcontractors under that contract from proving such information. This decision is important in its relevance to the larger birth control debate that’s going on right now.

To be clear, this decision only binds the Massachusetts federal district court it came out of. That by no means makes it legally insignificant, though.

In specifically stating that the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control and abortion are religiously-based, the decision will hopefully prevent any faction of the RCC from claiming a secular purpose. (As in the case of the Hyde Amendment, which survived an Establishment Clause challenge with that convenient dodge).

The important distinction here is that, in this case, there was explicit state action in the disbursement of federal funding to a federal program. In the case of the birth control mandate, on the other hand, it’s less clear cut. The analogy still stands, though, because in the recent opinion, USCCB was free to not bid for government contracts, and in the case of the mandate, religious institutions are free to not take part in the secular economy.

The analogy also holds strong when you consider the people who are harmed by this conscience exception. The court here pointed out that

…the restriction on the use of [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] funds for abortion services and contraceptive materials is not a subject of truly voluntary participation; subcontracting organizations and trafficking victims cannot “opt out” of the restriction without shouldering the financial burden of doing so.

Though the refrain of “Just get another job!” is frequently heard in this debate, it’s not that easy in the real world. Nurses at Catholic hospitals do not have the simple option of “opting out” of their employment because the terms of employment aren’t optimal. This reality lends itself to the argument that conscience exceptions to the birth control mandate are unjust.

As something of a sidenote, we as a society also do not allow employers free license to determine the terms of employment. From required lunch breaks to bans on child labor, we have all sorts of laws that attempt to balance out the power dynamic in employment negotiations. The birth control mandate is no different.

USCCB’s website addresses human trafficking:

The Catholic Church has repeatedly condemned human trafficking, stating that human trafficking “constitutes a shocking offense against human dignity and a grave violation of fundamental human rights.”

But denying needed medical services to vulnerable people? That’s freedom of conscience.

About Carrie

Carrie Clark is a lawyer in Illinois. The opinions herein are that of the author only. Any information in this post is for discussion purposes only, and is not offered as legal advice.

  • Anonymous

    “The Catholic Church has repeatedly condemned human trafficking,
    stating that human trafficking “constitutes a shocking offense against
    human dignity and a grave violation of fundamental human rights.”  ”

    That’s not very biblical of them, is it?

  • Heidi

    I love my state.

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      I was just about to post this, word for word.

      I love living in Massachusetts. :D

  • Sailor

    “stating that human trafficking “constitutes a shocking offense against
    human dignity and a grave violation of fundamental human rights.”
    Shame they cannot see that castrating young victims of priests pedophilia is not equally bad
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/netherlands/9153676/Dutch-Roman-Catholic-Church-castrated-at-least-10-boys.html
    Catholics are unbelievably pompous holier than thou hypocrites who will scream about things like birth control but do very little to deal with their own horrendous crimes. 

  • Anonymous

    I’m curious why you don’t mention the delegation of authority issues (Grendel’s Den, etc…) here.  

  • Ida Know

    The RCC has “repeatedly condemned human trafficking”?  Then what do they call this?

    http://news.yahoo.com/forced-adoptions-for-unwed-mothers-around-the-globe.html

    I just don’t get how anyone with a conscience is still Catholic…

  • Corey

    To think….Massachusetts Bay, later known as the state we all known as Massachusetts, my birth place and residence for most of my life, where once Puritans ran their theocracy, banning Quakers from public office, forcing them to fund their churches, banning people from the community, and hanging those they didn’t approve of, would become such a bedrock of ideology. We have “gay” marriage, yet, child rape went on for years, protected by many in Boston’s Catholic Churches, even getting Cardinal Bernard Law, who is neck deep in this horrid history, a better job in Rome, with the current Pope. Sad thing is, everyone still is forced to fund all religion’s churches, schools, organizations, (etc) through out this whole country, and the Catholic Church, including in Boston, still believes, for the most part, that it deserves the right to be above the law. I blame “liberal ideology”. However odd that may seem, coming from a flaming vegetarian, socialist, liberal like myself. But look over the history, and you can see where liberal ideology has not been good, because it has been too forgiving to those who do wrong, or willing to just look the other way to not “make waves”….”What would the neighbors say”? Should be the ideology of many who are liberal…well at least those in the Democratic party. They forgave Nixon, which just laid down the precedent to lets others follow in his foot steps. They forgave the Catholic Church, still meeting with them discussing laws, even at Ted Kennedy’s funeral. I was brought up Roman Catholic from a town of mostly Italians, whose parents and grandparents literally “came over on the boat” in the early 1900s, (1912, I think to be more accurate in my Father’s parents case), but, I was NEVER taught about the horrors of the bible, or the history of religion. I guess one could say, though you would think I would have, but “liberal” ideology may have made it possible to actually not do what so many do with religion: spread hate. I won’t say I don’t have “Catholic guilt” and that being gay in a small very closeted city growing up was easy, but what I got from my church as a child, was not hatred, attacking whole groups of people…..that was shunned. Well, that is my rant, coffee must of kicked in, I apologize if I didn’t spell Massachusetts correctly, seem to still have a problem with non-English languages many religious folks want to ban…..lol…plus I rarely reread what I “say”.

  • Rwlawoffice

     I read the judge’s opinion.  I do not think it will be upheld on appeal.  To say that the court can require the Catholic Church to provide information on abortion and contraceptive use in this program is a violation of the Church’s right to exercise its religion and in violation of the well recognized conscious exemption.


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