Republicans Charge Obama Is Anti-Catholic and Play Politics with Sex Trafficking Victims

This post has been updated.

The religious right is on a new mission: to prove that the Obama administration is anti-Catholic. It’s a bogus charge, but a potentially useful one during a campaign season when Obama is clearly aiming to win over the “people of faith” vote.

The latest charge takes aim at the administration because the Department of Health and Human Services did not award a new contract to treat victims of sex trafficking to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The story has been brewing for a week or so, but it’s starting to pick up steam in the form of false outrage over non-existent discrimination–and a possible congressional investigation.

Michael Gerson, the Washington Post columnist and former Bush speechwriter, gives some clues about why. “Obama’s Catholic strategy is in shambles,” he writes in yesterday’s column, owing to this grant decision which, “[b]roadly applied . . . would amount to systemic anti-Catholic bias in government programs.”

Gerson’s strategy is obvious. He starts out his column with Obama’s promises to work together at his 2009 commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. He makes note of Obama winning 54% of the Catholic vote in 2008. And then he charges that Obama’s “Catholic strategy,” presumably to trick Catholics into voting for him, is falling apart. 

A little perspective is in order. The Department of Health and Human Services is just that: a federal agency whose mandate is to provide services relating to human health. Its mandate is not to make sure that everyone’s religious beliefs get federal funding. So, when it declined to re-fund the USCCB under the National Human Trafficking Victim Assistance Program, it did not do so because it discriminates against Catholics. It did so because the USCCB refused to refer victims it treated for reproductive health care, including abortion and contraceptives. 

More than two dozen Republican Senators have protested in a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. She, too, must be anti-Catholic in Gerson’s mind; he contemptuously points out that she is a “an outspoken pro-choice Catholic” who “has a long history of conflict with Catholic authorities.” Bad girl!

In the letter, the Senators demand that HHS turn over documents relating to the grant award process by Friday. On the House side, the Republicans’ favorite investigator Rep. Darrell Issa has threatened an investigation if HHS does not turn over the requested information.

At the heart of all this (apart from the obvious electoral politics being played here) is what’s wrong with the way federal faith-based funding has grown over the past several decades and how it is perceived by its recipients. Getting taxpayer money to perform services you believe are part of your faith mission doesn’t entitle you to require those you serve to live by the tenets of your faith, or to use that money to promote your faith. The USCCB should understand that: they don’t want taxpayer money paying for abortions, and thanks to their relentless lobbying, it isn’t.

The USCCB not getting taxpayer money doesn’t mean the government is anti-Catholic. No one is just entitled to federal grants. But the beneficiaries of federally-funded services are entitled to those services free of religious directives. And for victims of sex trafficking, comprehensive reproductive health services are just what the doctor ordered.

UPDATE: Marci Hamilton, First Amendment expert and a professor at the Cardozo School of Law, tells me that the claim that the HHS action might violate laws proscribing religious discrimination is “very weak. There is no constitutional right to have government funding tailored to your religious requirements.”

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