July 22, 2020
Yesterday, the Trump Administration announced further steps to protect religious freedom during the coronavirus pandemic. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the resolution of two recent complaints filed against hospitals for infringing on religious freedom.
in June 2020, OCR received a complaint from a woman named Susanna Marcus, alleging she had requested a visit from a priest for her critically injured husband, Sidney Marcus. However, Prince George’s Hospital Center of the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), the hospital where Sidney Marcus was admitted, denied the request. In late May 2020, Susanna and Sidney Marcus were involved in major car accident. Due to the nature of Sidney’s injuries, the couple was separated, and Sydney was placed in the intensive care unit. As a result of Sidney’s continued decline in health, Susanna requested a visit from a local priest for prayer at the hospital. The priest, however, was turned away by the hospital, based on a visitor exclusion policy adopted in response to COVID-19, despite being willing to wear any necessary personal protective equipment. In partnership with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), OCR provided technical assistance to the hospital based on federal guidance which provides that “facilities must ensure patients have adequate and lawful access to chaplains or clergy.” Following this action by OCR, Prince George’s Hospital Center came into compliance with the federal guidance and granted Sidney Marcus’s request to freely exercise his religion by allowing the Catholic priest to visit and administer the sacraments of Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick to him.
This is significant because it concerns the ability of clergy to continue to operate and function during the coronavirus, something the administration made sure was included in nationwide guidance issued by the Department of Homeland Security. President Trump should be commended for ensuring clergy and pastors can continue to operate in this way and serve their communities during the coronavirus.
That same month, OCR also received a complaint from a medical student who was participating in rotations at the Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) in New York City. As a part of their response to COVID-19, SIUH temporarily suspended medical student rotations at the hospital. To return to rotation, SIUH required students to wear N95 respirator masks while assisting patients. As a result, SIUH informed one student that he would need to shave his beard if he wanted to return to his rotation. In accordance with the tenets of his religion, this student has not shaved his beard. HHS then stepped in to provided technical assistance to the hospital, and ultimately, they granted the student an accommodation to wear alternative protective equipment in the hospital so that he would not have to shave his beard.
These actions by the Trump administration may seem like small regulatory resolutions, but what they show is a consistent and concerted effort by this administration to protect religious freedom for all Americans. Everyone’s ability to practice their faith must be protected, and the administration is accomplishing this in concrete ways with actions like what HHS did yesterday. This also demonstrates that in times of crisis like the one our country is facing now, this administration will not protect one civil liberty at the expense of another. From the onset of the pandemic, HHS and the Department of Justice have been diligent to enforce laws protecting everything from disability rights to the right churches have to freely worship. No matter the situation our country faces, the Office of Civil Rights at HHS is on duty, protecting the guard rails of civil rights like religious freedom.
If you have a been discriminated against by a healthcare provider or government agency for your religious beliefs, please visit hhs.gov/ocr to file a complaint.
Connor Semelsberger, MPP is the Legislative Assistant at Family Research Council.
Jeremy Pilz is a Policy and Government Affairs intern focusing on federal legislative affairs, with a concentration on pro-life issues.