“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 when she was governor of Kansas because she vetoed bills that would have imposed new restrictions on abortion providers. At one point, the archbishop of Kansas City asked her to stop taking Communion.
On Aug. 1, HHS issued a proposed mandate that would require insurers to 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.
A dispute over abortion
The trafficking contract was aimed at providing housing, counseling and other services to trafficking victims who are held in workplaces through force or fraud. It was first awarded in 2006, after a controversial decision by the George W. Bush administration to direct more federal social service contracts to faith-based groups. The contract ultimately provided the Catholic bishops with 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 the lawsuit it filed in U.S. District Court in Boston in 2009, argued 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 it 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 argued that HHS allowed the Catholic group to impose its beliefs. But in defending the contract on behalf of HHS, Justice Department lawyers argued that the contract was constitutional and that the bishops had been “resoundingly successful in increasing assistance to victims of human trafficking.’’
This spring, as the contract approached its expiration, HHS political appointees 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.
“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 Sharon Parrott, a top Sebelius aide closely involved in the process. “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.’’
The “strong preference” language now lies at the heart of the dispute. Sheldon, the HHS assistant secretary, said that 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 deck against the group and violated federal laws barring discrimination based on religion. “This was a political decision,’’ Walsh said.