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Explainer: HHS Office of Civil Rights clarifies religious freedom rights during pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, religious freedom issues have emerged in a number of places. The healthcare space is no exception to this rule. Thankfully, as has been the case in a number of other areas, as these issues have surfaced, the parties have worked together to find resolutions that allow health and safety to be protected while honoring religious freedom and allowing the parties to live out their beliefs.

This week, the HHS Office of Civil Rights announced two new settlements that involved such conflicts in healthcare. These new settlements resulted in accommodations for religious practice that also uphold the principle of safety in combating COVID-19. We welcome these settlements and hope they serve as an example for the entire healthcare industry as we together grapple with how to combat COVID-19 while living out our faith in our daily lives.

New York medical student 

At Staten Island University Hospital, a medical student was eager to help treat COVID-19 patients, but was told that he must shave his beard to comply with hospital regulations and because his beard interfered with the effectiveness of an N-95 mask. The student’s religion forbade him from shaving his beard, so he contacted OCR. OCR was able to work with the hospital to provide this student with a powered air purifying respirator that was more effective than a N-95 mask and did not require the student to shave his beard. 

During a public health emergency, it is important to recognize that with creativity and sensitivity to the faiths of others, it is possible to pursue the goal of safety while accommodating what many Americans live for—their faith. Thankfully, Staten Island University Hospital was able and willing to work with OCR to devise a creative solution that allowed the medical student to honor his religious beliefs while keeping himself and his patients safe.

Prince George’s Hospital Center

A married couple in Maryland was riding on a motorcycle when they were, unfortunately, hit by a drunk driver.  Both the husband and wife had to be medivaced to the University of Maryland’s Medical System Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly, Maryland. The wife had to be placed on a ventilator and was unable to see her husband, who was in grave condition. As they were both devout Catholics, she requested that a member of the clergy visit her husband to deliver last rites. Her request was denied because, due to coronavirus concerns, the entire University of Maryland (UM) Medical System was not allowing clergy visits until “just before the moment of death,” which is a difficult time frame to precisely predict. 

When OCR was contacted, they were able to work with the UM system to develop new system-wide protocols that allows clergy members to visit people of faith as long as the clergy members take reasonable precautions and wear personal protective equipment. The UM system also worked with OCR to alter the COVID-19 protocols for individuals with disabilities and the UM system now allows them to have a designated support person to help them better communicate with the medical staff and to provide additional comfort and support to the disabled patient. 

Moving forward

These two cases prove that reasonable accommodations can be made to ensure safety for both patients and medical providers that do not infringe on the free exercise rights of either.  Individuals need not shed their religious beliefs to either provide or receive medical care. 

As Christians, and especially as Southern Baptists concerned with religious liberty, we need to be aware of possible infringements on religious freedoms, not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of all people of faith. The ERLC and other religious liberty organizations exist to defend religious freedom and will continue to monitor regulations across multiple industries to ensure the free exercise of religion is not unduly burdened. Thankfully both hospitals were willing and able to work with the OCR and take fast action to remedy religious freedom violations and devise resolutions that promoted both public safety and religious expression.

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