Darrell Issa’s Show Trial
on Alleged Obama Administration “Anti-Catholic Bias”

Rep. Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is outraged, simply outraged by the notion that the Department of Health and Human Services requires that its contractors, who are funded by taxpayer dollars, provide services to sex trafficking victims that include referrals for reproductive health services.

At a hearing today, titled, “Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Catholic Church: Examining the Politicization of Grants,” Issa and the Republican majority attempted to prove that by declining to renew a contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops because it would not provide such referrals, HHS is exhibiting an anti-Catholic bias.

At one point during the hearing, Issa interrupted the chief witness, George Sheldon, the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at HHS, charging that a contractor could be a “shitpot” better qualified than other applicants and HHS would still not award it a contract because of this alleged bias.

Advocates for reproductive rights and church-state separation are rightfully alarmed. “After being physically and emotionally brutalized by traffickers, [sex trafficking victims] 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,” said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Today’s 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. . . . [F]ederal tax dollars should not be used to impose religious values on others.”

Issa, who claimed to be conducting the hearing over the $2 million contract because of the necessity of good stewardship over taxpayer money, repeatedly insisted that the administration was motivated by a contempt for the deeply held religious beliefs of the Catholic Bishops. He was assisted by Rep. Chris Smith, an anti-choice crusader who doesn’t serve on the committee, but liberally speechified as he questioned the HHS witnesses. 

Smith charged the Obama administration with “promoting abortion” through the contracting process and of engaging in “unethical” violations of religious conscience laws, although his proffer fell short of establishing any sort of legal infraction. “The Obama Administration’s bias against Catholics is an affront to religious freedom and a threat to all people of faith,” Smith said. The USCCB was discriminated against, Smith went on, “solely because it fundamentally respects the innate value and preciousness of an unborn child and refuses to be complicit in procuring his or her violent death by abortion.”

To be clear: the sex trafficking program at HHS does not fund either contraceptives or abortion. It does fund emergency medical services, but not abortion services, Marrianne McMullen Director, Office of Public Affairs at the Administration for Children and Families, told me. Rather, grantees are to refer clients — many of whom have been brutally raped and otherwise sexually abused — for the “full range of legal obstetric and gynecological care,” McMullen said.

In other words, here are the Republican priorities: opposition to referring victims of kidnapping, assault, rape, and imprisonment by violent abusers to reproductive health care that includes abortions and family planning services, while protecting the “religious freedom” of those federal contractors who refuse to make such referrals.

Even though these victims of horrific sexual violence were the subject of the hearing, the Republican majority had refused the Democrats’ request to have victims themselves testify at the hearing. Instead, a dozen or so men talked about them (with brief questioning by the anti-choice Republican Anne Marie Buerkle and the pro-choice Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton).

Two Catholics, though, stepped up to contest the Republican charges of anti-Catholic bias. Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, noted that in spite of “USCCB’s lobbying against Administration priorities,” HHS awarded many other grants to the USCCB, and that “federal funding for Catholic Charities affiliates has increased by $100 million since 2008.” And John Tierney, Democrat of Massachusetts, noting his own Catholic faith, argued that “a lot of people would like to be discriminated against like that,” referring to the tens of milions of dollars in federal grants that go to Catholic organizations annually.

Connolly, though, saved his most charged rhetoric for the second round of questioning, saying the hearing reminded him of a “latter-day Torquemada” conducting “an inquisition against the secular state.” No one, said Connolly, “can speak for all Catholics and the Catholic Church.” Catholics “have different points of view,” he said, adding that he hoped that those differences, “in a pluralistic republic, would be respected.”

This fabricated scandal isn’t going away anytime soon, though. It’s a perfect crucible for interrelated Republican cause celebres that all serve as election season fodder: that the Obama administration “promotes abortion;” that contraceptives are like a gateway drug for abortion; and that the Obama administration is depriving the Catholic Bishops of their religious liberty.

But the Democrats could easily turn this around on the Republicans. Should rape victims be forced to carry pregnancies to term because of the Bishops’ religious beliefs? Should sex trafficking victims be deprived of access to contraceptives because of the Bishops’ religious beliefs? Should taxpayers fund those deprivations based on the Bishops’ religious beliefs? Should the Bishops speak for all Catholics, many of whom believe that sex trafficking victims have suffered enough and should have access to the full range of reproductive health services? As Connolly put it, “Nobody speaks for me as an American Catholic.” 

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email