Rep. Smith: 'Obama Adminstration's Bias Against Catholics Is an Affront to Religious Freedom'

December 1, 2011 - 7:54 PM

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.)

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) (CNSNews.com photo/Penny Starr)

(CNSNews.com) – House Republicans sharply criticized the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Thursday for "politicizing" federal grants that benefit victims of human trafficking. Why was the most experienced and top-rated grant applicant -- the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- not selected, while lower-ranked groups got the money instead?

The answer is discrimination, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee: “If you are a Catholic or other faith-based NGO, or a secular organization of conscience, there is now clear proof that your grant application will not be considered...under a fair, impartial, and totally transparent process by the Obama administration. The Obama adminstration's bias against Catholics is an affront to religious freedom and a threat to all people."

Smith noted that independent reviewers found the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to be one of the most experienced experts on human trafficking.

From 2006 to 2011, the USCCB received HHS grants to help 2,271 victims, many of them girls as young as 12 years old, through USCCB's National Human Trafficking Assistance Program.

In October, the most recent grant expired, and the HHS -- after an open-bidding process -- decided to award approximately $4.7 million in funding  to three other agencies: $1,095,711 to an Atlanta-based group called Tapestri; $1,020,250 to Heartland Human Care Services of Chicago; and $2,589,125 to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, based in Washington, D.C.

Smith, who authored the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, is furious:

“In what can only be described as an unconscionable abuse of power, the Obama administration has engaged in what amounts to bid rigging: denying taxpayer funds to a demonstrably superior organization -- the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) -- with an exemplary ten-year track record of performance that scored significantly higher in independent HHS reviews than two of the three NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that got the grant.”

The Obama administration’s discriminatory practice of funding NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that provide or refer for abortions even when they fail to win a competitive process is not only unjust, unethical and in violation of conscience laws, but it severely undermines public -- and congressional -- confidence and support for what is an otherwise laudable program,” said Smith.

The grant proposals submitted by applicants to the HHS for the funds were independently scored. According to a document provided by HHS to the committee and obtained by CNSNews.com, the top-rated applicants and their scores were as follows: Heartland Human Care Services scored 90 out of 110; USCCB scored 89; Tapestri, Inc. scored 74; and the U.S. Committee on Refugees scored 69.

Despite the USCCB ranking second, the applicants in the 1, 3, and 4 positions were awarded the grant money.

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHS’s Children and Family Services, defended the grant awards by stating that trafficking victims need access to “all of the services and referrals delineated in the program objectives.”

He said those objectives include offering “all victims referral to medical providers who can provide or refer for provision of treatment for sexually transmitted infections, family planning services and the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care, including but not limited to exams, tests, and pre-natal services and non-directive health-related counseling."

The “full range” of family planning services includes abortion, artificial birth control, and sterilization, all of which are contrary to Catholic moral teaching.

But during the course of the hearing, it was noted by Republicans on the committee that the 2006-2011 grant did not include any requirements for reproductive or family planning services.

“So the question becomes, when did they change the rules, who changed them, and why would you really disenfranchise and disadvantage the Catholic Conference of Bishops and all of the good work because of that one issue?” Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) told CNSNews.com in an interview following the hearing.

“We are concerned that HHS and this administration – where did this change in the rules come from and was the Catholic Conference advised of it and what is the thinking behind it?” Buerkle said.

Buerkle added that the Conference should not have been denied grant funding simply because it will not provide or refer for abortion, contraception or sterilization.

On the USCCB Web site, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the Conference, said that a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which charges that HHS should not grant funds to organizations that will not provide or refer for abortion and other family planning services, is what influenced the government’s decision.

Walsh called the decision “a new unwritten reg” that she dubbed “the ABA Rule: Anybody But Catholics.”

The lawsuit, filed on Jan. 12, 2009, is still working its way through the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts.

In a statement released on Thursday, the ACLU said the congressional hearing “was a political show-trial bought and paid for by the powerful lobbyists at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops exerting their influence over certain members of Congress.”

“One theme emerging from today’s hearing is that trafficking victims deserve better, and they do,” said the ACLU. “After being physically and emotionally brutalized by traffickers, they deserve not to have other people’s religious values imposed on them, and to be able to determine what is in their best interest when it comes to their own health care needs.”