For Immediate Release

Organization Profile: 

Bethany Woolman, ACLU of Northern California, 415-293-6385,
Sandra Hernandez, ACLU of Southern California, 213-977-5252,
Allison Steinberg, ACLU, 212-549-2540,

ACLU Sues Federal Government for Granting Millions of Dollars to Religious Groups That Deny Young Women Access to Medical Care

Groups like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have been awarded upwards of $10 million annually to care for unaccompanied immigrant minors despite their explicit refusal to allow them access contraception and abortion

WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Northern California, and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California today filed a lawsuit against the federal government for awarding millions of dollars annually to organizations that fail to provide crucial medical care to unaccompanied immigrant minors. The government authorizes some of these organizations to refuse — on religious grounds — to follow the law that requires access to contraception and abortion, even in cases of rape.

The suit claims that by authorizing government grantees to impose religiously based restrictions on young women’s access to reproductive health care  the government has violated the constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state. Groups like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have been awarded upwards of $10 million annually to care for these young people, despite its explicit refusal to allow these young women to access contraception and abortion. Placing restrictions on reproductive health care has devastating consequences for this population, according to the ACLU. A high number of unaccompanied immigrant minors have been raped in their home countries or during their journey to the United States, and therefore they have an acute need for critical reproductive health care.

“When a teen has endured unthinkable tragedy — violence, rape, a terrifying journey to an unfamiliar place — and she arrives here afraid and alone, the last thing we should do is deny her the care she needs,” said ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Brigitte Amiri. “Our taxpayer dollars should not be used to authorize organizations to violate the law and impose their religious beliefs on these young women and deny them care they desperately need.”

The federal government is legally required to provide unaccompanied immigrant minors — children and teenagers who come to the U.S. on their own — with basic necessities, such as housing, food, and access to emergency and routine medical care, including family planning services and abortion. Reports indicate that between 60 and 80 percent of women and girls who cross the border are sexually assaulted.

"The federal government can't abdicate its legal obligation to protect and provide reproductive health care to these vulnerable young women. Allowing religious organization to dictate the type of care that these teens, who often have fled unimaginable violence, receive is not only unlawful but also cruel," said ACLU of Southern California LGBTQ, Gender, and Reproductive Justice Project Director Melissa Goodman.


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Documents obtained through an ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit show that the federal government approved grants to USCCB even though it was well aware that USCCB’s agreement with its sub-grantees explicitly prohibits them from providing, referring for, or in any way facilitating access to contraceptives and abortion services. The FOIA documents also show that the government allowed religiously affiliated grantees to effectively kick young women out of their programs because they requested an abortion.

The ACLU filed a similar case in January 2009 in Massachusetts after the ACLU learned through an investigation that the federal government allowed USCCB to impose religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services in a taxpayer funded program for trafficking victims. In March 2012, the district court ruled in the ACLU’s favor, holding that a religious institution does not have the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on trafficking survivors and deny them access to reproductive health care. In January 2013, the First Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case as moot since USCCB's contract expired and was not renewed. 

Despite the federal government’s assurance that USCCB would not be awarded the trafficking contract in the foreseeable future, the federal government once again awarded that contract to USCCB in 2015. The ACLU has filed a FOIA lawsuit to obtain more information about that contract.

More on this case including stories of harm from women:


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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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