Fight Over Federal Funding of Religious Charities Advances

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union accusing the federal government of violating the U.S. Constitution by funding religious groups that care for unaccompanied immigrant minors but don’t offer birth control and abortions.

In an order issued Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler denied the government’s motion to dismiss the ACLU’s lawsuit. Filed this past June, the group says the U.S. Health and Human Services violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution mandating the separation of church and state by giving taxpayer money to religious groups for the minors’ care.

Beeler found the ACLU of Northern California has taxpayer standing to challenge the grants under the provision.

To establish taxpayer standing, a party must challenge a congressional action. The government had argued that the ACLU lacked taxpayer standing because it had challenged agency discretion and not a congressional action.

But the ACLU said it has taxpayer standing because Congress authorized the funds to fulfill the government’s legal obligation to care for unaccompanied minors, many of whom are fleeing sexual abuse and torture.

The government apprehends many of them at the U.S.-Mexico border or through other immigration enforcement activities.

Beeler agreed with the ACLU, finding it challenges appropriations made by Congress specifically to carry out its obligation to the unaccompanied minors.

“Congress mandated that the agency provide care to unaccompanied minors, and it authorized disbursements to provide that care,” Beeler said in the order. “Because [Health and Human Services, through the Office of Refugee Resettlement] makes grants under that statutory mandate, the ACLU – through its taxpayer members – has standing.”

In its lawsuit, the ACLU tells of 17-year-old Rosa, who was hospitalized to prevent her from committing suicide after Catholic Charities in Miami denied her access to an abortion after she was raped by one of her guides on her journey to the United States from Mexico.

Upon her release from the hospital, Catholic Charities and His House, another religious government grantee, refused to allow Rosa into their programs because she wanted an abortion.

The refugee office eventually granted her request for the procedure.

ACLU attorney Brigitte Amiri said in an email Wednesday the organization is pleased with the judge’s ruling.

“Judge Beeler’s order means that the case can go forward to hold the government accountable for allowing government grantees to impose their religious beliefs on unaccompanied minors by restricting access to critical reproductive health care,” Amiri said.

Since Health and Human Services took over caring for unaccompanied minors in 2002, the number of children in the program rose from 13,625 children in fiscal year 2012 to 57,496 in fiscal year 2014. The number dropped to 33,726 children in this past fiscal year, according to Office of Refugee Resettlement data.

Most minors who are referred to the office are eventually released to parents or sponsors in the United States. Those who aren’t released are sometimes transferred to group homes or foster facilities.

Congress spent $1.6 billion on the office’s Refugee and Entrant Assistance Programs in fiscal year 2016. With that funding, Health and Human Services awarded 56 grants to more than 30 care providers, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The conference received nearly $10 million in tax dollars to assist immigrants in 2014, according to the ACLU’s complaint.

Brigitte Amiri is with the ACLU Foundation’s Reproductive Freedom Project in New York.

The government is represented by Justice Department attorney Peter Phipps in Washington. He did not return a request for comment.