New U.S.A.I.D. Rule a Model?

A little-publicized policy directive from the U.S. Agency for International Development is getting a closer look from advocates of religious freedom and promoters of conscience protections in federal law. The directive offers broad and inclusive conscience protections to faith-based organizations funded by U.S.A.I.D. to operate AIDS treatment and prevention programs and other health care programs around the world, Catholic observers said.

Specifically, the directive bans discrimination against faith-based and other organizations that decide not to engage in activities that violate religious or moral principles, such as condom distribution and education in their use. Advocates of religious freedom see the language in the agency’s acquisition and assistance policy directive as a model that could be implemented in all government programs, contracts and grants, with minor changes depending on the programs individual agencies oversee. Such language could pertain to federal programs ranging from health care reform to assistance to human trafficking victims.

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“[The new directive] expresses quite well what we would have wanted to see, and we are pleased with the constructive process we went through with [U.S.A.I.D.] and they went through with us,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.

“It’s very important obviously because the church’s global health network is critical to addressing the problem of AIDS in many countries. That was recognized in the legislation and now is recognized explicitly in this guidance, so we can at least compete fairly. We’re not asking for any preferential treatment. But as the law specified, we wanted to be able to compete fairly without discrimination because of our teaching,” O’Keefe said.

He acknowledged that C.R.S. played the leading role in the directive’s development. The agency has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for AIDS services around the world since 2004 and helped almost 700,000 people.

The language in the directive to U.S.A.I.D. staff around the world is explicit in explaining that any organization—faith-based or otherwise, both domestic and international—that is eligible to receive funding for AIDS prevention and treatment shall not be required to adhere to all aspects of what the agency calls a comprehensive approach to combating the disease. Such an approach includes the distribution of condoms and instruction on their use.

The directive implements the conscience protection mandate that was included in the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde U.S. Global Leadership Against H.I.V./AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008. The law authorized up to $48 billion over five years to combat malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS. It includes funding for the widely lauded President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program, known as Pepfar.

The directive was welcomed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is embroiled in its own dispute with the Obama administration over religious freedom issues and conscience protections on a number of fronts, particularly health care reform. Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, remained cautious, however, noting the directive is limited to specific programs funded by one government agency.

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