Religious groups that refuse abortion counseling no longer can get grants to help trafficking victims unless they ensure the counseling is provided by a third party, under new guidelines by the Department of Health and Human Services.
In guidance quietly posted online in June, the agency said groups competing for grants must offer "the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care," which includes abortion counseling and referrals. If groups don't offer the services, they must propose an alternative approach to remain competitive for a grant.
That has at least one anti-abortion advocate contending the new policy may violate the federal Weldon Amendment, a law saying federal money can't be awarded if it's being used to discriminate against healthcare entities that won't provide or refer women for abortions.
Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, which stages a big anti-abortion march in Washington every January, called the policy change legally questionable.
"We need to ask if this is legal," Mancini said. "I think it is terrible the Obama administration is willing to put abortion policy ahead of good, loving services to these women who have already gone through the mot undignified treatment of people that could happen."
Related: The Left's telling aversion to facts and plain language on abortion
The federal money is provided through the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement to charities that help trafficking victims access healthcare services, get mental health counseling and find employment. It can't be used to fund abortions, under the federal Hyde Amendment.
The policy shift is unlikely to affect any of the three current grant awardees. Those groups, which include Georgia-based Tapestri, Chicago-based Heartland Human Care Services and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, based in Arlington, Va., don't advertise any particular religious history or views on their websites.
Related: Walker to become third GOP candidate to sign abortion ban
But it would affect any new groups that apply for grants in the fall. And to conservatives, who are still upset with the administration over its requirement for businesses to cover birth control under Obamacare, the policy change could represent a marginalization of those with religious convictions.
Questioned about the policy shift, an HHS representative said the agency is "committed" to making allowances for organizations with religious objections "while ensuring that clients have access to the full range of legally permissible services for which they are eligible."
The new policy represents the second time the agency has tightened the rules on trafficking grants in the last few years. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes contraception and abortion on moral grounds, lost funding in 2011 when the agency started giving preference to groups that offer the "full range of services," including abortion counseling.
The newest guidance, which was posted June 19 and applies to grants being awarded in the fall, further tightens the rules by requiring groups to ensure contraceptives and abortion counseling are made available to trafficked women via a third party.
If HHS approves groups applying for an alternate route, which will be done on a case-by-case basis, the group will then get a "religious accommodation," the guidance says. But it also cautions that even with the accommodation, groups can't discourage women from seeking abortion counseling through the subcontractor.
"The alternative approach must be one that accomplished the goal of ensuring that trafficking victims understand the full range of services available to them, including reproductive health services, and that there is a mechanism by which victims requesting such services can receive appropriate referrals," the guidance says.