Religion, Hospitals And The Public Good

Public hospitals are frequently relied on to provide medical care for entire communities. In light of these facilities' responsibilities, there's simply no reason for a municipal hospital, on public property, supported directly and indirectly with public funds, to deny certain services because they fail to conform to the guidelines of a specific religious denomination.

Yet that's exactly what is occurring at one Florida hospital.

In St. Petersburg, a public medical facility has been operated by Bayfront Medical Center since 1968. Medical services changed dramatically in 1997 after Bayfront entered into an alliance with several other facilities in the Tampa area, including religiously run hospitals. As a result, the facility now operates under the "Ethical and Religious Directives" of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In a nation committed to the separation of church and state, this represents a serious problem.

Medical decisions at Bayfront were once based on a patient's needs and doctors' advice. Now religious dictates are being used to limit these options.

Burdens have already begun. Hospital employees have been given a statement to sign that says they will follow the Catholic bishops' guidelines. Moreover, the public facility no longer makes a variety of legal medical procedures available, including abortions, sterilizations, emergency contraception and artificial inseminations. Religious guidelines even mandate that the hospital limit the decisions of seriously ill patients who have expressed their wishes in living wills.

A federal lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the National Organization for Women Foundation and local chapters of Planned Parent­hood, seeks to right this wrong.

This case can set a monumental precedent impacting hospitals nationwide. Since 1995, there have been over 100 mergers between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals across the country. Many have resulted in fewer healthcare options for patients.

By allowing the Roman Catholic hierarchy to wield veto power over medical decisions at a public hospital, the principle of church-state separation is ignored. A single religious denomination should not exercise control over publicly supported hospital care.

Courts should uphold the church-state separation principle, stat!