Levittown, Pa. — The American Civil Liberties Union wants the Department of Health and Human Services to provide records related to government policies on abortion and contraception access for unaccompanied and refugee children.
The organization filed a lawsuit in April against the HHS and the Administration for Children and Families under the Freedom of Information Act seeking the records on policies regarding children in the custody of the government or various grant recipients.
An ACLU representative said the information is necessary to learn whether HHS officials are violating the rights of immigrant children by allowing religious organizations, including Catholic social service agencies, to limit access to abortion and contraception.
Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, said the organization has been concerned about this issue for several years. She said the ACLU respects religious freedom and fights for those rights, but that when Catholic or other religious organizations accept funding from the government to care for children, "they must abide by what they sign up for."
The ACF and HHS declined requests for an interview but issued a statement through a spokesperson. It said the ACF is cooperating with the FOIA request filed in September, which asks for information dating to 2009.
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Attention to the needs of unaccompanied children peaked during summer 2014 when tens of thousands of children surged into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America. Department of Homeland Security statistics show that more than 67,300 unaccompanied minors were detained in fiscal year 2014. While some were deported, others sought asylum and many were reunited with relatives living in the U.S. Thousands remain in foster care, however.
The children receive care from numerous social service agencies that contract with the government. Catholic Charities agencies and Lutheran Social Services are among the largest contractors.
The ACF said in the statement that the government's Office of Refugee Resettlement, of which it is a part, "is mindful that some potential and existing grantees and contractors may have religious or moral objections to providing certain kinds of services, including referrals (for example, for emergency contraception)."
"ORR is committed to providing resources and referrals for the full range of legally permissible services to unaccompanied children who need them, helping to facilitate access to these options, and doing so in a timely fashion and in a manner that respects the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds of the unaccompanied children," the statement said. "At the same time, ORR is also committed to finding ways for organizations to partner with us, even if they object to providing specific services on religious grounds."
Brian Corbin, senior vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, told Catholic News Service that while the federal government sets specific regulations for the health care of the children involved, what Catholic Charities and its agencies adheres to church teaching and do not offer abortion or access to contraception.
"The likelihood that a young woman in the care of Catholic Charities would find herself in need of these services is extremely remote," he said. "In the unlikely event that this situation materialized, Catholic Charities supports these women by offering services which are entirely consistent with the teachings of our church."
Amiri said that the separation of church and state is violated if Catholic organizations’ bishops are allowed "to impose their beliefs" on children who have already suffered during their trip to the U.S.
Corbin quoted Pope Francis, saying the church is like a field hospital, and noted that agencies have children in their care for an average of 30 to 35 days.
"These kids are coming in exhausted, hungry, and traumatized," he said, and Catholic Charities agencies provide them with food, shelter, and safety. He explained that the young people are familiar with the church because of connections within their home countries and feel safe seeking help from church agencies.
Caring for these children "is the very essence of what we do," Corbin explained. In the "deep moral sense of who we are," he said, Catholic Charities agencies would work on a smaller scale without government aid, but partnering with the government allows both Catholic Charities and the government to leverage their resources to help more children.
Brian Walsh, president of the Civil Rights Research Center in Washington, said that although his organization is not involved with the lawsuit, he sees it as a sign of the way "we are beginning to see a hostility toward religion" in many areas of society.
He said research has shown that a rise in government restrictions on religion leads people to believe that it is acceptable to discriminate against people of faith. "Millions of Americans" of varying religious traditions are motivated by their faith "to serve the most vulnerable" among us, he said.
While avoiding the establishment of religion, he said, government is not required to go against the religious beliefs of faith-based organizations with which it contracts for services. Rather, Walsh explained, at a time when government is just about everywhere and involved in just about everything, it should "be doing everything it can to protect these faith-based services."