By FRC's David Closson
For over six months Americans have been forced to adjust their lives because of the coronavirus. Aspects of everyday life, including the enjoyment of constitutionally protected rights, were temporarily set aside, or abridged while the nation worked to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus. While most states and entities worked in good faith with churches, certain jurisdictions and groups have used the virus as an excuse to infringe on basic religious liberty protections.
Thankfully, when this has happened, the Trump administration has stepped in and ensured that churches, religious organizations, and people of faith are treated fairly and not discriminated against on the basis of faith. The latest example is a recent announcement by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) concerning hospitals.
At the height of the pandemic, when there was still much uncertainty about the virus, state and local officials enacted a series of public health and safety precautions. Many hospitals put stringent visitation restrictions in place to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
However, as the pandemic has persisted and medical experts have learned more about the virus, it is now clear that some restrictions are no longer necessary. In fact, continuing to deny certain rights is dangerous to the wellbeing and health of Americans in other ways. This is particularly true in cases where patients were denied requested spiritual guidance and counsel.
In July 2020, a new mother at MedStar's Southern Maryland Hospital Center tested positive for COVID-19 after giving birth and was immediately separated from her newborn baby. Distressed by the situation, she asked for a Catholic priest to come and baptize her son. According to Catholic theology, pedobaptism (baptism of infants) is a required sacrament and an important part of Catholic faithfulness. But her request was denied due to coronavirus restrictions.
A month later in August 2020, a COVID patient in Arlington, Virginia was nearing the end of his life. His family asked a priest to visit and administer the sacraments, but their request was denied as well. Later that day, in the same hospital, another family requested the presence of a priest to administer the sacraments for a family member who had underwent a serious surgery. Their request was also refused.
When these cases were reported to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, OCR informed the hospitals that they had violated the rights of their patients. As a result of OCR's intervention, both hospitals modified their pandemic visitation policies to allow pastors and clergy to minister in compassionate care situations. Visiting religious leaders still must follow reasonable health and safety policies, including testing for infection, wearing a face mask, and possibly quarantining, but they are no longer denied access to patients because of the hospital's failure to understand the role of religious beliefs in a patient's well-being.
Following the hospitals' change in policy Roger Severino, Director of OCR said, "We applaud the MedStar Health System and Mary Washington Healthcare for ensuring that all of their patients can now receive religious support when they need it most." He added, "Compassionate care requires treating the body without sacrificing the soul, and these resolutions show how hospitals can do that safely even during a pandemic."
While the OCR's decisive actions on behalf of these Christian patients should be applauded, it is concerning that the federal government needed to step in at all. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of all Americans to order their lives around their religious convictions. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that there those in state and local government, as well as in various institutions, that will use any excuse possible to curtail the rights of people of faith.
Thankfully, we have an administration that understands the importance of faith and has taken steps at every turn to protect religious freedom. We should not take this for granted and should continue to advocate for policies that protect the fundamental right of all Americans to practice their faith.