This morning, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a full committee hearing to investigate claims of gross politicization of a grant process that stripped funding for a group effectively serving human trafficking victims.
In late September, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) ceased funding for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) work with victims of sex slavery and trafficking. The bishops’ group had been using HHS funds to assist trafficking victims since 2006. While HHS has not specified a reason for denying USCCB further funding, some have wondered whether the Obama Administration’s pandering to a pro-abortion agenda influenced the process.
Back in July, HHS released the grant competition requirements, stating the department would give “strong preference” to applicants that offer referrals for “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care”—including referrals for abortion. USCCB, in accordance with its religious beliefs, has a policy of refusing to refer trafficking victims for contraception or abortion.
USCCB provides a wide range of necessary services to victims, including housing, medical assistance, and mental-health care, and has successfully partnered with more than 150 religious and secular groups to care for more than 2,700 victims of human trafficking. According to sources within the HHS, however, the success of USCCB’s efforts in saving and serving trafficking victims apparently did not warrant the department’s “strong preference.”
A Washington Post investigation found that USCCB lost the grant competition despite having received higher scores of effectiveness than other grant competitors. Of the three groups awarded funding by HHS this fall, two of the applicants “scored significantly below the Catholic bishops’ application,” according to Post sources.
George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary of the Administration of Children and Families, who testified at today’s hearing, has denied prejudice against the bishops’ group in the grant process. Some career staffers at HHS, however, have apparently expressed concern that political appointees were involved in reshaping the grant process and seemed intent on denying the trafficking assistance funding to the bishops’ group. The Washington Post reported:
In the case of the trafficking contract, senior political appointees at HHS stepped in to award the new grants to the bishops’ competitors, overriding an independent review board and career staffers who had recommended that the bishops be funded again, according to federal officials and internal HHS documents.…The decision not to fund the bishops this time has caused controversy inside HHS. A number of career officials refused to sign documents connected to the grant, feeling that the process was unfair and politicized, individuals familiar with the matter said.
Commenting on the House Oversight Committee’s investigation into allegations of politicization of the grant process, Chairman Darrell Issa (R–CA) said at today’s hearing:
These actions appear to constitute an abuse of discretion and undermine the integrity of the process, while potentially violating the spirit, if not the letter, of federal laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination based on religious beliefs.
If evidence gathered by the Oversight Committee points to HHS discrimination against the Catholic group, this wouldn’t be the first time the Obama Administration has sacrificed protection of conscience rights to achieve its political goals. Faith-based entities like USCCB should be free to work according to deeply held beliefs—the same beliefs that spur concern for those in need in the first place. This most recent episode in an escalating battle over the conscience rights of faith-based entities suggests attacks on institutional religious freedom may be far from over.