WASHINGTON, December 1, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A Congressional watchdog committee is investigating whether the Obama administration denied millions of dollars in grant money to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops because of its religious objections to abortion.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Congressman Darrell Issa, held a two-hour hearing on the issue Thursday morning.

Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle, who sits on the committee, told LifeSiteNews.com that Obama administration political appointees “changed the rules in the middle of the game” and ignored “objective criteria” to deny federal funds to any group that refuses to condone “abortion, contraception, or sterilization.”

In late September, the Department of Health and Human Services declined to renew an anti-human trafficking grant to USCCB’s Office of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS). The USCCB had won the grant in a competitive process every year since 2006.

Instead, the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) awarded two less competitive organizations grants after passing a new requirement that agencies receiving any of the $4.5 million in grants be willing to refer patients for the “full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care,” including abortion and contraception.

An administration insider familiar with HHS told The Washington Post the decision “prompted a protest from some HHS staffers, who said the process was unfair and politicized.”

“We’re talking about a Catholic group with a superior track record that was pushed aside to promote the abortion agenda,” said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-NJ, who was asked to attend the hearing.

HHS has claimed its decisions were based on “a competitive grant process.”

However, the two grant recipients – Tapestri and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) – scored significantly below the Catholic organization in a neutral score test.

As well, Eskinder Negash, the director of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, previously served as vice president and COO of USCRI, which critics say raises a potential conflict of interest.

Congresswoman Buerkle said Negash “did not acknowledge whether he recused himself from the entire process, which would have been the appropriate thing to do. He refused to answer.”

Members have five days to file follow-up questions from today’s hearings. Congresswoman Buerkle said she intends to press this inquiry.

“Who changed the language? That’s another answer we’re waiting to get,” she added.

Buerkle said the new rules would hurt those most in need of food, clothing, shelter, and legal resources.

She noted, “only 19 percent of all [human] trafficking is sexual trafficking.” Far fewer cases involved pregnancies. Buerkle accused the HHS of having “disenfranchised those most in need of these services” to promote a pro-abortion agenda.

The change in funding criteria came after the ACLU filed a lawsuit over the USCCB’s funding shortly before the Obama administration came to power, claiming the grant “allowed USCCB to impose its religious beliefs.”

Chairman Darrell Issa, R-CA, countered that it is the Obama administration’s new policy that flirts with impermissible viewpoint discrimination. Issa wrote, “the judgment of experienced, career-level professionals was discarded when political appointees chose to overrule transparent decision-making.”

Instead, he concluded, the department’s “actions appear to constitute an abuse of discretion and undermine the integrity of the process, while potentially violating the spirit, if not the letter, of federal laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination based on religious beliefs.”

USCCB spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh said the grant-making process appears to be guided by the maxim, “ABC (Anybody But Catholics).”

The grant denial is but one flashpoint in a brewing war between the Obama administration and the Roman Catholic Church. President Obama recently boasted of a federal regulation requiring religious employers to pay contraception, including abortifacient drugs like Ella, through their insurance plans.

All forms of unnatural birth control violate Roman Catholic teaching.