(Harry Hamburg/AP)

House Republicans on Thursday sharply criticized a decision by the Department of Health and Human Services in September to deny a federal grant to a Catholic group that refuses to refer victims of human trafficking for abortion and contraceptive services. Some lawmakers charged that the action reflected a broader anti-Catholic bias in the Obama administration.

Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform countered that the Republicans were trying to “smear” the White House.

HHS officials testified at the hearing that they believed they acted appropriately in awarding the $4.5 million in funding to three other nonprofit groups even though their applications had received significantly lower scores from an independent review board than the one submitted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

More than 30 Republican lawmakers have sent letters to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius arguing that the decision by the agency’s Administration for Children and Families to deny the Catholic organization an anti-trafficking grant was politically motivated and may have violated federal antidiscrimination laws. The group had been receiving the grant since 2006.

“If we are going to have a litmus test that ‘Catholics need not apply’ ... we need to say so, we need to codify it in the law, and we need it to withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House oversight panel, said at the hearing. He said he believed that the court would not side with HHS in the case.

The Health and Human Services officials pointed to figures showing that the agency had provided more money to Catholic organizations over the past three years of the Obama administration ($650 million) than it had over the final three years of the George W. Bush administration ($560 million).

In the days after denying the grant to the bishops group, the agency awarded the organization a separate $19 million grant -- a sum more than four times the amount of the anti-trafficking grant.

The Washington Post’s Jerry Markon has reported that, according to officials and documents, political appointees became involved in drafting the criteria for this year’s anti-trafficking grant and awarded it to the three nonprofit groups, despite the recommendation from some career officials that the Catholic organization be funded. Issa argued Thursday that the potential for politics to determine who gets federal grants is the “more complicated issue” at stake and needs to be addressed by the Obama administration.

“We must ensure that the grant process can never be called an earmark process based on ideology or political appointees’ whims,” he said.

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the agency’s Administration for Children and Families, said the three groups that were awarded the grant monies were “well-regarded” and that officials made their decision based on the answer to this question: “Which organizations were best able to serve all the needs of the victims?”

“The unwillingness of the bishops to agree to provide the full array of services raised questions as to whether they could meet the full objectives. ... The restriction was not that they were unwilling to refer to a physician but restricting what that physician could do,” Sheldon said.

Lawmakers grew heated as they argued over the Obama administration’s relationship with Catholics and with religious groups more broadly. Relations between the administration and the Catholic church have been strained in recent months by the debate over the anti-trafficking grant and the Obama administration’s decision in February to no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), among the most strident opponents of abortion rights in the House and the author of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act that provided for the HHS grants, called the agency’s decision “an unconscionable abuse of power” and said that there is now “clear proof” that the Obama administration will not consider the grant applications of Catholic groups through a fair and transparent process.

“The Obama Administration’s bias against Catholics is an affront to religious freedom and a threat to all people of faith,” Smith said.

Rep. Mike Kelly, a freshman from Pennsylvania, also objected to the decision to end funding of the bishops group and cited the organization’s past success in helping victims of trafficking.

“All the good work they’ve done, everything indicated in their past history, was negated by the language,” Kelly said. “That’s not right, gentlemen. It’s not right, it doesn’t make sense to me, it’s not American, and to me this is absolutely pathetic that we have to have a hearing to discuss this. This is so obviously to me a way of eliminating faith-based people from being able to participate by structuring language that would leave them out.”

But Democrats hit back, some accusing Republicans of deliberately calling the hearing to portray the Obama administration as inhospitable to Catholics. GOP lawmakers on the panel objected to the accusation.

“The title of today’s hearing frames Health and Human Services as being in conflict with the Catholic church. ... The underlying argument is whether a victim is going to have their health care services limited or not,” Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) argued that the “hyperbolic rhetoric” from some Republicans on the panel “would suggest that the purpose of the hearing is to try to smear the Obama administration.”

“The idea that there’s some systematic attempt, a bias implemented against the Catholic church or against Catholic entities, is a libel and is not true,” he said.

“We’ve pretty much put to rest whether there’s a Catholic bias in this administration,” Connolly said. “There isn’t.”

Connolly referred to his own Catholic faith in defending the decision to deny the grant. “No member can purport to speak for the Catholic church or for all Catholics,” he said, “and I say that as a Catholic.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued HHS over its previous awarding of the anti-trafficking grant to the bishops group, charged in a statement Thursday that the hearing “was a political show-trial bought and paid for by the powerful lobbyists at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops exerting their influence over certain members of Congress.”

Sarah Lipton-Lubet is the policy counsel for the ACLU. “One theme emerging from today’s hearing is that trafficking victims deserve better, and they do,” she said. “After being physically and emotionally brutalized by traffickers, they deserve not to have other people’s religious values imposed on them, and to be able to determine what is in their best interest when it comes to their own health care needs.”