A contentious battle between Catholic groups and the Obama administration has flared in recent days, fueled by the new health care law and ongoing divisions over access to abortion and birth control.
The latest dispute centers on the Department of Health and Human Service’s decision in late September to end funding to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help victims of human trafficking, or modern-day slavery. The church group had overseen nationwide services to victims since 2006 but was denied a new grant in favor of three other groups.
The bishops organization, in line with the church’s teachings, had refused to refer trafficking victims for contraceptive or abortion services. The American Civil Liberties Union sued and HHS officials said they made a policy decision to award the grants to agencies that would refer women to those services.
The bishops conference is threatening legal action and accusing the administration of anti-Catholic bias, which HHS officials deny.
The fight escalates an already difficult relationship between the government and some Catholics over several issues. The bishops fiercely oppose the administration’s decision in February to no longer defend the federal law barring the recognition of same-sex marriage. Dozens of Catholic groups also have objected in recent weeks to an HHS mandate — issued under the health care law — that requires private insurers to provide women with contraceptives without co-payments or other out-of-pocket charges.
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. That happened as the ACLU suit is preceding before a federal judge in Boston.
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. Their concerns have been reported to the HHS inspector general’s office.
HHS policies spell out that career officials usually oversee grant competitions and select the winners, giving priority consideration to the review board’s judgment. The policies do not prohibit political appointees from getting involved, though current and former employees said it is unusual, especially for high-level officials.
“I think it’s a sad manipulation of a process to promote a pro-abortion agenda,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops conference. She has written on the organization’s blog that the decision reflects an HHS philosophy of “ABC (Anybody But Catholics.’’).
HHS officials denied any bias and pointed out that Catholic groups have received at least $800 million in HHS funding to provide social services since the mid-1990s, including $348 million to the bishops conference. One of those grants, $19 million to aid foreign refugees in America, was awarded to the bishops three days after the anti-trafficking contract expired on Oct. 10.
“There wasn’t an intention to go out and target anybody,’’ said George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families. “Nobody has ownership of a contract.’’
HHS had said that at least four grants for trafficking victims would be awarded, but Sheldon said he decided that the $4.5 million for would be shared among three non-profits: Heartland Human Care Services Inc. Tapestri Inc., and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
The applications of Tapestri and the U.S. committee were scored significantly below the Catholic bishops by the review panel, the individuals familiar with the matter said.
“I don’t think there was any undue influence exerted to make this grant go one way or another,’’ Sheldon said. “Ultimately, I felt it was my responsibility — and I’m not trying to get anyone off the hook here — to do what I thought was in the best interests of these victims.’’
The dispute marks the latest chapter in HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s complicated relationship with the church. Raised Roman Catholic in Ohio, she was fiercely criticized by Catholic and other groups as governor of Kansas because she vetoed bills that would impose new restrictions on abortion providers. At one point, the archbishop of Kansas City asked her to stop taking Communion.
On Aug. 1, HHS mandated that insurers provide contraceptives and other preventive health services for women in employee coverage, a decision hailed by Democrats and women’s groups but opposed by Catholic groups and social conservatives. Catholics argue that a proposed exemption for some religious employers is far too narrow.
The trafficking contract was aimed at providing housing, counseling and other services to the victims of trafficking, who are held in a workplace through force or fraud. It was first awarded in 2006, amid a controversial Bush administration decision to direct more federal social service contracts to faith-based groups.
The contract ultimately provided the Catholic bishops more than $19 million to oversee those services.
At the time, several members of the federal review board assessing the bidders raised concerns that the Catholic group would not refer victims for abortions or contraceptives, according to documents in the ACLU lawsuit. The documents said the board still ranked the Catholic group far above other applicants.
The ACLU, in its lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston in 2009, argues that many women are raped by their traffickers and don’t speak English, making it hard for them to find reproductive services without help.
While the bishops’ organization would not refer women directly, it allowed subcontractors to arrange for the services, but refused to reimburse the subcontractors with federal dollars.
“The principle of Church teaching is that all sexual encounters be open to life,’’ said Walsh, of the bishops conference. “It’s not a minor matter; this is intrinsic to our Catholic beliefs.’’
The ACLU lawsuit argues that HHS allowed the Catholic group to impose its moral beliefs. But in defending the contract in court on behalf of HHS, Justice Department lawyers argue the contract was constitutional and that the bishops have been “resoundingly successful in increasing assistance to victims of human trafficking.’’
As the contract approached its expiration, HHS political appointees this spring became involved in reshaping the request for proposals, adding a “strong preference” for applicants offering referrals for family planning and the “full range” of “gynecological and obstetric care.’’ That would include abortions and birth control; federal funds cannot be used for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother.
Sharon Parrott, a top Sebelius aide, was closely involved in the process.
“When important issues that are a priority arise, it’s common for senior policy advisers of the department to have a dialogue...to reach the best policy decision,’’ said Parrott, counselor to Sebelius for human services policy. “The priority in this case was how to best meet the needs of victims of trafficking so they can take control of their own lives.’’
But some HHS staffers objected to the involvement of the secretary’s office, saying the goal was to exclude the Catholic bishops, individuals familiar with the matter said.
“It was so clearly and blatantly trying to come up with a certain outcome,’’ said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to the media. “That’s very distasteful to people.’’
The “strong preference” language now lies at the heart of the dispute. Sheldon, the HHS assistant secretary, said it played a role in selecting the new grantees and that “it’s very important that these victims, who have experienced trauma ... be provided the full range of information.’’
The bishops conference says the language essentially stacked the decked against them and violated federal laws barring discrimination based on religion. “This was a political decision,’’ Walsh said.
Brigitte Amiri, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s reproductive freedom project, said the organization is “very pleased” about the change in grantees but is continuing with the lawsuit.
The organization is also considering suing over another HHS grant to the Catholic bishops: $8 million annually to provide foster care and other services to children who are illegal immigrants.
A subcontractor working for the bishops, Catholic Charities in Virginia, several years ago fired four social workers after they helped a 16-year-old immigrant teenager obtain birth control and an abortion, Amiri said.
The Obama administration recently renewed that grant. Amiri said the ACLU is in “discussions” with HHS over “how the needs of these teenagers can be met.’’ The bishops conference declined to comment.
Photo Gallery: Whte House Halloween