January 2012 Church & State | People & Events

A group of Republican legislators has attacked the Obama administration for declining to give a federal grant to a Roman Catholic group that refused to provide a full range of services to people who are victims of human trafficking.

The flap began in November when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops complained because their social service arm was denied a contract from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to assist victims of human trafficking. Church leaders and their allies in Congress say the contract was denied because of anti-Catholicism.

Officials at the HHS say that’s not the reason. They pointed out that the church wasn’t willing to fully meet the needs of trafficking victims by offering them referrals for contraceptive services.

Many victims of trafficking have been sexually abused or forced into prostitution. Thus, HHS wanted to ensure that the contract would go to a group that was willing to provide comprehensive case management, including referrals for contraceptives and other reproductive care.

The bishops weren’t willing to do this. In fact, they had planned to farm the contract out to other groups under the condition that they first agree to not provide referrals for abortion or contraceptives.

A previous contract to the church resulted in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which sought to ensure the survivors of trafficking would receive the full range of health-care services.

This year, the contract, totaling $4.5 million in grants, went to three other groups instead of the bishops.

The decision infuriated right-wing groups and lawmakers. The Washington Post reported, “[M]ore than 30 Republican lawmakers said the decision was unfair to the Catholic group and might violate federal laws banning discrimination based on religion. Two of the letters are seeking internal HHS documents relating to the decision and one, sent Monday by Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), said his investigative committee may issue subpoenas if HHS doesn’t comply.”

On Dec. 1, House Republicans went so far as to hold a hearing on the matter. During the hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Issa insisted that anti-Catholic bias had come into play.

“If we are going to have a litmus test that ‘Catholics need not apply’…we need to say so, we need to codify it in the law, and we need it to withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court,” Issa said.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), a vocal opponent of legal abortion, called the HHS decision “an unconscionable abuse of power” and said it was “clear proof” that the Obama administration was biased against Catholic groups.

Democrats at the hearing accused the GOP of playing politics.

U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) blasted the GOP’s “hyperbolic rhetoric” and said such talk “would suggest that the purpose of the hearing is to try to smear the Obama administration.”

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, said religion played no role in the decision. He told the committee that the three groups that received the contract are well regarded and said the decision was made according to the question of “which organizations were best able to serve all the needs of the victims.”

Americans United pointed out that the Catholic hierarchy can hardly claim it is being discriminated against. Every year, Catholic Charities and other Catholic groups receive millions in taxpayer money to run social services. About 65 percent of Catholic Charities’ budget now comes from the government.

Washington observers say election-year politics may have a lot to do with the flap. Catholics are an important swing vote, and in 2008 they backed Obama by 54 percent. Republicans have been looking for a way to get some of those votes back into the GOP column, and portraying Obama and his administration as anti-Catholic may be part of their plan.