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Religious discrimination alleged by Catholic group that lost federal funding to stop human trafficking

Published: Friday, Nov. 4 2011 1:43 p.m. MDT

A government agency is operating under an unspoken ABC policy - "Anyone But Catholics," the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a group that recently lost federal funding in what they allege was a discriminatory process.

For six years the USCCB's Office of Migration and Refugee Services had received millions of dollars to aid victims of human trafficking. Yet, a recent letter from the Department of Health and Human Services informed the group they'd no longer receive government funding - despite earning higher scores on their application than the three other applying agencies.

The Office of Migration and Refugee Services has been under fire since 2009 when the ACLU filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts arguing that the group was imposing their religious beliefs on the victims by limiting the types of services available through money.

As a Catholic organization, the group didn't refer victims for abortions, sterilizations or contraceptives.

The government has denied any type of Catholic bias and pointed out that Catholic groups have received at least $800 million for social service funding since the mid-1990s, according to the Washington Post.

"One of those grants, $19 million to aid foreign refugees in America, was awarded to the bishops three days after the anti-trafficking contract expired Oct. 10," according to the Washington Post

Response to the lack of funding has been swift and strong. In Missouri, Brian O'Malley, president of Catholic Charities of St. Louis, speculated about what precedent this move might set.

"The concern we have is the trend here, that government funding is going to be restricted somehow by insisting that the Church modify its beliefs," he told the St. Louis Review. He also worried that the "services for the poor are at risk."

However, talk about the victims has been noticeably absent from the discussion, which has instead morphed into one more about religious liberty, says Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of the Chicago Theological Seminary.

"Women and girls victimized in this sex trafficking system need health care; that is beyond dispute," she writes in the Washington Post. "But what they also need is a restoration of respect for them as people capable of ethical decision-making where their bodies, minds, and spirits are concerned. Reproductive services, including contraception and legal abortion, are part of that restoration for them, to choose or not to choose as part of their journey toward wholeness."

For many religious groups, including members of the LDS faith, abortion may be considered an option in select cases - including rape, incest and health of the mother, situations that many of these trafficking victims find themselves in.

sisraelsen@desnews.com

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