Religious Liberty Tops Concerns

The Obama administration and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continue their rocky ride as the bishops increasingly focus on concerns related to religious liberty. Bishops have become alarmed by, among other conflicts, the shutdown of Catholic foster parenting and adoption services in Illinois because of new laws governing civil unions; requirements that Catholic Relief Services include condom distribution in their H.I.V. prevention activities; and a too-narrow interim religious exemption in new Department of Health and Human Services requirements on reproductive services for women.

Speaking before a House subcommittee on Oct. 26, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chair of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, described “grave threats to religious liberty.” He said the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence require government to protect religious liberty, “no matter the moral and political trends of the moment.”

A public contretemps over the non-renewal of a Department of Health and Human Services contract with the U.S.C.C.B.’s Office of Migration and Refugee Services has become the latest source of conflict. Since 2006 the contract had directed more than $19 million to M.R.S. to coordinate counseling services for victims of human trafficking. That deal became the target of a lawsuit filed in 2009 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, demanding that H.H.S. “ensure that funds...are not being used to impose religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services.”

The director of media relations for the U.S.C.C.B., Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., said the decision to end the relationship with M.R.S. and pass the work on to other agencies willing to make abortion and contraception referrals indicated a “very ham-fisted anti-Catholic attitude.” She cited a story that appeared in The Washington Post on Oct. 31, which reported that the recommendations of career H.H.S. personnel were ignored when the grant was awarded to other agencies.

But Richard Sorian, H.H.S. assistant secretary for public affairs, said, “The review process for competitive grants is comprehensive and considers a number of factors, including, but certainly not limited to, the scores given by reviewers.” Sorian said, “Ensuring the health and security of victims of human trafficking is H.H.S.’s top priority for programs providing funds to assist these victims,” he said. “We are talking about women in many cases who have been repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted, held against their will and forced to work in cruel conditions. Their health and ability to retake control over their own lives is our sole concern in awarding these grants.”

But Sister Walsh alleged it was abortion politics, not the needs of the trafficking victims that propelled the change. “It would be interesting to see if he could come up with an actual number when [reproductive services] was a need,” she said. “Of the hierarchy of the needs [of trafficking victims]—food, shelter, counseling, safety, legal assistance,” Walsh said, “I think those are all a lot higher.”

Sorian denied that the M.R.S. decision reflected a bias against Catholic service providers. “This administration has and continues to partner with Catholic organizations, including U.S.C.C.B., across government,” he said. “In fact, after their trafficking-related contract expired, U.S.C.C.B. received a $22 million grant from the Administration for Children and Families to provide employment services to refugees, asylees and victims of trafficking.”

Another H.H.S. official pointed out that hundreds of millions in federal dollars were awarded to Catholic agencies for 2011. Sister Walsh wondered, however, if a changing climate in Washington and the ramifications of the A.C.L.U. suit might mean those grants and contracts will in the future become a diminishing resource for Catholic service providers.

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