HHS looks into removing barriers to program funding for religious groups

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Oct. 25 that it is looking for ways to ensure that faith-based and religious groups are not blocked from receiving HHS funding for their programs.

The department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs issued what is called a request for information, seeking comment for 30 days from religious and faith-based groups about ways they have been blocked from receiving funding.

“Faith-based organizations have historically been a crucial component of HHS’s efforts by delivering charitable care to Americans in need,” the HHS document said, noting that the agency awarded more than $817 million in grant funding to faith-based organizations in 2007.

It is seeking comments from faith-based groups as a follow-up on the guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice Oct. 6 issued to all administrative agencies and executive departments regarding religious liberty protections in federal law.

Since HHS mainly partners with faith-based organizations through grant and contract funding, it said it wanted to “identify any regulatory, guidance-based, or other requirements or conditions for grants or contracts that present barriers for faith-based organizations to participate in HHS-funded programs.”

The department said it also wanted to make sure faith-based organizations are “affirmatively accommodated, and not excluded from HHS-funded or conducted programs or activities” especially because of requirements that could be a burden to their religious beliefs.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services knows about getting blocked from an HHS grant. In 2011, the HHS declined to renew a grant to the agency, following a lawsuit in 2009 by the American Civil Liberties Union against HHS for its contract with MRS, specifically citing the Catholic agency’s refusal to offer abortion and contraceptive services to victims of human trafficking.

The contract for MRS services began in April 2006 and lasted five years. A six-month extension was granted by HHS administrators. However, when proposals for funding trafficking victims’ services were sought again in 2012, the guidelines stated that a “strong preference” would be given to applicants willing to offer “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”

MRS was excluded from funding because it maintained that it would continue to follow Catholic teaching and would not agree to pay for abortion and contraceptive services offered to trafficking victims through the agency’s established network of subcontractors.

In 2013, a federal appeals court dismissed a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to the federal contract with MRS, saying the case was moot because the contract had expired.

The decision was good for the U.S. bishops’ agency, but it left unanswered the legal question of religious accommodation in the delivery of services under a federal contract.

The HHS document seeking more information from religious groups points out that it is the federal government’s largest grant distributor and the third largest federal contracting agency providing funding for health care services, child welfare programs, resources to the elderly, child care and nutrition programs, refugee resettlement and biomedical and other scientific research.

It also notes the extent of work done by religious and faith-based groups pointing out that in 2013 they ran more than half of all continuing care retirement communities in the U.S.; almost 60 percent of the emergency shelter beds for the homeless in 11 major cities were provided by faith-based organizations last year; and one in six hospital patients were cared for in Catholic hospitals in 2015.

It also said faith-based organizations provide significant assistance in natural disasters and emergencies.

“HHS is dedicated to engaging in partnerships with a broad range of private sector organizations, some of which are faith-based and some of which are not, and we aim to administer our programs and funding without discrimination on the basis of religion,” it said.

Comments can be submitted on the website, by email or regular or overnight mail. Details can be found on the Federal Register at http://tinyurl.com/yd4p8mjk.

By Carol Zimmermann / Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn