Explainer: COVID-19 patient religious discrimination

October 28, 2020

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recently resolved two religious discrimination complaints involving patient access to clergy. These resolutions ensure that hospital patients will have access to ministers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What happened?

After giving birth alone at Medstar’s Southern Maryland Hospital Center (MSMHC) in Maryland, a mother was involuntarily separated from her newborn baby due to her testing positive for COVID-19. The mother requested that a Catholic priest visit and baptize her baby. The hospital denied the mother’s request, citing their COVID-19 visitor exclusion policy. Following this painful ordeal, the mother filed a complaint with the OCR’s Conscience and Religious Freedom Division (CRFD).

A second complaint was made against Mary Washington Healthcare (MWHC) in Virginia. MWHC would not allow a priest to administer the Catholic sacraments of Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick to a patient sick with COVID-19 in an end-of-life situation. The patient’s family requested the priest visit and administer the sacraments. In August, The Diocese of Arlington filed the complaint with the CRFD. The hospital ultimately permitted the priest to visit the patient after the complaint was filed.

Additionally, MWHC did not allow a priest to visit a surgery patient in its intensive care unit (ICU). The patient’s family requested a priest visit and administer religious sacraments. Even though the patient did not have COVID-19, the hospital did not allow the priest to visit since the entire ICU was designated as a COVID unit. Only patients in end-of-life situations could receive visitors within the ICU. While just out of surgery, the hospital did not consider the patient in an end-of-life situation. And in this case, the Diocese of Arlington filed another complaint with the CRFD to ensure that a priest could visit patients desiring these religious sacraments and spiritual care.

How were the cases resolved?

After the complaint was filed, the OCR provided guidance to Medstar Health System detailing lawful access to chaplains or clergy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Medstar Health System updated its visitation policies for all 10 of its hospitals, including MSMHC in Maryland. As a result, all patients, even those located in COVID-19 units, are now able to receive religious services from their spiritual leaders as long as the visit does not disrupt the care of the patient. Clergy visiting the hospital must follow hospital safety policies including COVID-19 screening, social distancing, and the wearing of a face mask.

After consulting with the OCR, MWHC in Virginia changed its visitation policy to allow patients identified for compassionate care, including those in end-of-life situations, within COVID units access to clergy. Before visiting, clergy must complete a scheduled infection control training by the hospital. Clergy must also wear PPE that is provided by MWHC. Patients in non-COVID units can receive clergy visitations as long as the visit does not disrupt care.

Why is this important?

In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect tens of thousands of people each day. For those requiring hospitalization, especially those in critical or end-of-life situations, it is essential that these patients have access to spiritual care from chaplains and clergy. While reasonable precautions, such as those outlined above, should be taken to ensure patient visits or religious services do not further the spread of the virus, it is absolutely vital that such opportunities are not denied to those who are hospitalized, regardless of whether or not they are suffering from COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic should not preclude anyone from practicing their faith. During this time, many hospital patients have been forced to tragically suffer in isolation, away from friends and family. While it is not difficult to understand the necessity of maintaining strict visitation policies at this time, it is imperative that all patients have access to spiritual care and support. The resolution of these complaints demonstrates that it is possible to both practice public health and accommodate religious expression. By taking necessary precautions, clergy can safely visit patients to provide the requisite spiritual care. These developments present models for all hospitals around the country to follow. 

Justin McDowell contributed to this explainer.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author