By Rob Boston
Some of my friends in Washington are employed by firms that handle contracts for various federal agencies. It works like this: The department in question (Health and Human Services, Education, Defense, etc.) issues a document listing in detail what needs to be done, and companies compete to get the contract by explaining how they’ll do it and what they’ll charge.
If a company doesn’t come up with a convincing plan or ignores the department’s wants, it won’t win the contract. It’s that simple.
Lately, officials with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have been complaining because they were denied a contract from the Department of Health and Human Services to assist victims of human trafficking. Church leaders and their allies in Congress say the contract was denied because of anti-Catholicism.
Actually, no. The bishops didn’t win the contract because they refused to fully meet the needs of trafficking victims.
Many victims of trafficking – which is essentially a form of modern-day slavery – have been sexually abused or forced into prostitution. Thus, HHS wants public funds to go to a group that can provide comprehensive case management, including referrals for contraceptives and other reproductive care. The Catholic bishops refused to do these things. Therefore, they didn’t get the contract.
This has led to an outbreak of whining from the right wing. As The Washington Postreported, “[M]ore than 30 Republican lawmakers said the decision was unfair to the Catholic group and might violate federal laws banning discrimination based on religion. Two of the letters are seeking internal HHS documents relating to the decision and one, sent Monday by Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), said his investigative committee may issue subpoenas if HHS doesn’t comply.”
It’s quite remarkable, really. A Catholic organization that openly stated that it is not willing to provide comprehensive care failed to get a government contract. This should not surprise anyone. Yet this is being portrayed as religious discrimination.
Let’s be clear about this: No religious group has a “right” to taxpayer money – and religious groups certainly shouldn’t get it when they are unwilling to serve the public interest and meet the terms set forth by the government. But as it turns out, Catholic organizations are hardly facing discrimination in D.C. As The Post pointed out, the church isn’t being shut out of the contracting game. The Post reported that since the mid-1990s, “Catholic groups have received at least $800 million in HHS funding to provide social services, including $348 million to the bishops conference.”
In this particular case, the church hieararchy was denied the public aid not because of animus toward Catholicism but because, I will state once again, it wasn’t willing to do what the contract asked.
Let’s say this contract also required referrals for psychological counseling. Let’s say the Church of Scientology, which is known for its hostility toward psychology, applied for the contract. Let’s say Scientology officials said, “We will do everything the contract calls for, except one thing: We’re not going to refer these victims of trafficking to psychologists because we don’t believe in that.” It would be nothing short of madness to give the church the contract anyway.
What’s especially sad about this is that the people in need of services have already been victimized. They might have been raped, forced to work long hours for no pay or compelled to engage in illegal activities like drug smuggling. Some are minors. They deserve help. It’s unconscionable to victimize them again by denying them referrals for vital services (in a tax-funded program yet!) because of a church’s repressive theology.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, toldThePost, “The more we look at this, the more concerned we are about it. It appears the grant process was manipulated.”
Yes, Sister, the process was manipulated. It was manipulated so that the contract was given to a group that is willing to do the work.