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House Hearing Reveals Fundamental Policy Difference in Religious Liberty Debate

December 7, 2011, 2:00 pm | Posted by Tara Culp-Ressler

As John noted yesterday, some Catholic bishops and conservative pundits have been criticizing the Obama administration for a purported “anti-Catholic bias,” citing a Department of Health and Human Services grant with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that was not renewed. The HHS funding is awarded to organizations that aid victims of human trafficking; staffers explained that HHS’s decision resulted from a “strong preference” for groups that provide a “full range of gynecological and obstetric care,” which would include information about contraceptive and abortion services.

Last Thursday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a congressional hearing to examine whether HHS’s funding decision was a case of discrimination against faith-based groups. Two opposing threads of reasoning emerged, highlighting the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of this debate.

On one hand, House Committee Chair Darrell Issa argued that the government has a responsibility to accommodate faith-based groups that may fall outside of the bounds of specific guidelines. In an exchange with HHS Assistant Secretary George Sheldon, Issa illustrated his point with a comparison to an Orthodox Jew seeking employment as a driver despite the fact that he is unable to perform his driving duties on the Jewish Sabbath:

ISSA: “Mr. Sheldon… we’re not arguing today specifically about whether those services are right or wrong, about abortions…any of that. We’re arguing over who had the responsibility. And you seem to think–repeatedly, in every answer–that the bishops had the responsibility and I’m going to say from this position as chair that we, the government, have the responsibility to square executive orders, and the law, and our requests for proposals and grant writing. Not the religious-based person who says ‘I can’t drive on Friday night through Saturday at dusk because of my religion, and yes there’s someone else who can’t do it on Sundays; let’s reconcile that.’ It’s our obligation as government. That’s my view.”

D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton voiced the other perspective, disagreeing that the government is responsible for finding ways to reconcile their objectives with faith-based groups’ objectives:

NORTON: “I just want to say for the record that this is a hearing about public money. No one is entitled to a grant in the United States, faith-based or otherwise. There is no preference for any group to receive a grant, and each funding cycle is a new cycle. Public money in our country comes from people with many different background and many different views. They come continually from people with many different religious views. So there is only one issue here, and that issue seems to be whether HHS followed or failed to follow the objective procedures for awarding a grant… I don’t see how Congress can be concerned with anything but two issues: were the procedures followed, and are we paying attention first and foremost to the victims – as opposed to the organizations whose power systems, after all, are in competition with one another?

In this light, allegations of the Obama administration’s anti-religious bias distract from this larger policy debate. It’s important to recognize the root of the conflict in order to have a respectful debate going forward.

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