12/01/2011 05:34 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2011

GOP Defends Bishops Over Grant For Sex Trafficking Victims

House lawmakers sparred bitterly on Thursday over the Obama administration's decision to deny a group of Catholic bishops a lucrative grant because they refused to refer sex trafficking victims to a full range of reproductive services. Republicans accused the administration of being overtly anti-Catholic and promoting abortion, while Democrats said the GOP had scheduled the hearing with the sole purpose of "smearing" President Obama.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently decided not to renew a $19 million, five-year contract with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to help sex trafficking victims because the group does not refer survivors to abortion or contraception services. The three groups who received the grant instead of the bishops -- Tapestri of Atlanta, Heartland Human Care Services of Chicago and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants of Washington -- all agreed to provide victims "the full range of reproductive services" recommended by the health department.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on Thursday to interrogate the health department over its decision on this one grant. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said the fact that the bishops were qualified in every other way to help sex trafficking victims proved that the administration was basing its decision entirely on a pro-abortion, anti-Catholic bias.

"The Obama administration's bias against Catholics is an affront to religious freedom and a threat to all people," he said at the hearing. "The Catholic organization was discriminated against solely because it fundamentally respects the innate value and dignity of an unborn child and refuses to be complicit in his or her violent death."

George Sheldon, Acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families under HHS, told the committee that many sex trafficking victims who become pregnant following multiple traumatic rapes deserve to be at least offered the option of ending that pregnancy and procuring contraception for the future. He said that HHS clearly told all groups competing for the grant that "strong preference" would be given to those organizations that would refer victims to doctors who can provide STI treatment, family planning services and "the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care."

According to HHS, a team of reviewers looked at all the applications and determined the strengths and weaknesses of each. The USCCB initially received a higher score than the others because it had carried out its previous contract successfully and had significant experience helping sex trafficking victims. Yet it lost the contract because it failed to provide details in its application as to what reproductive health alternatives it would provide for pregnant sex trafficking victims.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, asked Sheldon how the bishops could receive a higher rating than other groups and still be denied the contract. Sheldon tried to answer the question, but Issa interrupted him angrily.

"You did not tell them that they could be just a shitpot better and still not get the award," he shouted. "That has a chilling effect."

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) pointed out that the Obama administration had awarded Catholic groups a number of other lucrative federal contracts this year and had granted them more money over the past three years than the Bush Administration did in the three previous years. He said that this should be proof enough that Obama is not biased against Catholics, and that Republicans were only making a big deal out of this particular grant to make the president look bad.

“The title of today’s hearing frames Health and Human Services as being in conflict with the Catholic church," he said. "The underlying argument is whether a victim is going to have their health care services limited or not."

"I hope the gentleman did not mean to say that the Chair is being disingenuous or outright lying about the purpose of this meeting," Issa snapped back.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who is Catholic, tried to lay the issue of Obama's alleged religious discrimination to rest, but slipped in a dig to Issa in the process.

"I am alarmed when people use hyperbolic rhetoric, which might suggest to some, certainly not me, that actually the purpose of the hearing … is to try to smear the Obama administration with a label that, if true, would be very disturbing," he said. "As a Catholic, I would like to believe that it's not true. In fact, there's plenty of common-faith evidence that it's not."