WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's handling of human trafficking grants spurred House Republicans to accuse the administration of discriminating against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The House Oversight and Government Reform committee held a hearing Thursday to examine how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reached a decision not to award funding from a $4.5 million grant program to the Catholic group and instead funded three other groups, even though two of those groups scored much lower than the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on an scale used to rank applicants for federal grants.
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The committee, led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is investigating the matter, and alleging that political appointees at HHS denied the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops the grant because of the group's unwillingness to refer victims to abortion and/or family planning services.
Of the four grantees who applied for a 2011 grant to aid victims of labor and sex trafficking, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was the second highest-scoring, and an independent reviewer recommended awarding grants to it and one other group. However, the Catholic group was ultimately denied, and the three other organizations got the grants.
HHS' Acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, George Sheldon, defended the decision and said it's ultimately HHS' decision on what organizations receive grants, and that the agency isn't required to award them based on scores.
"Scores are advisory in nature and the ultimate decision to award or not award rests with the assistant secretary," Sheldon told the panel.
Sheldon said it was clearly specified that strong preference would be given to applicants who are willing to offer services or referrals for "the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care," including exams, tests, treatment for sexually transmitted infections, family planning services, and abortion.
Because the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was not willing to offer or contract with an outside group to provide "the full range" of legal gynecological and obstetric care -- namely birth control and abortion -- their application was denied.
Sheldon said groups who are opposed to family planning services are awarded grants all the time, but often will contract with other groups to provide those services rather than provide them themselves.
Issa accused Sheldon's department of acting in a way that violates federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on religious beliefs.
When asked if there was religious bias shown in not awarding the Catholic Bishops the grant, Sheldon replied, "I can state unequivocally that there was not."
Sheldon said that HHS has awarded $650 million in grants to Catholic organizations in the past three years, including a $19 million grant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops four days after the trafficking grant was denied.
The committee's investigation into the grant program is ongoing.