Oct 24, 2012

When the federal government lets a church group impose religious doctrine on a publicly funded program, taxpayers have the right to take the matter to court.

That’s the viewpoint put forward by Americans United for Separation of Church and State in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today.

The appeals court is considering a case in which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2006 gave the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops control over a program that helps sex-trafficking victims. The bishops’ conference then denied funding to other social service agencies unless they promised not to use the public dollars for abortion or contraceptive services. 

The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the arrangement, saying it violated church-state separation and denied essential services to trafficking victims.

A federal district court ruled in the ACLU’s favor, but now the bishops’ conference and HHS are claiming that the case should be thrown out because taxpayers have no “standing” to bring matters like this into court.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “It is an outrage that the federal government allowed a church group to deny essential public services to hurting people on religious grounds. It would compound that outrage if concerned citizens were not allowed to bring this violation into court.”

In 2011, the federal government discontinued the bishops’ control of the program, but the lawsuit, ACLU of Massachusetts v. Sebelius, is still being argued and crucial church-state separation issues remain at stake.

The Americans United brief filed today asks the appeals court to uphold taxpayers’ right to challenge government grants that violate church-state separation.

“Ensuring that religion is supported privately, not by public funds, was a principal goal of the Founding Fathers when they included the Establishment Clause in the Bill of Rights,” the brief argues. “The arguments made by [the bishops’ conference and HHS] here would eviscerate that goal by closing courthouse doors on taxpayers who seek to vindicate it.” 

In addition to Americans United, the brief was signed by the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

The brief was authored by AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and Steven Gey Fellow Randall Maas (2012 law school graduate; not admitted to any bar), in consultation with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.