- The Washington Times
Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Federal civil rights attorneys announced Tuesday the resolution of religious discrimination complaints that were filed after hospital systems in Maryland and Virginia were accused of denying Catholic priests access to perform sacramental rites during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights announced “modifications” to visitation policies at MedStar Health System, which operates 10 hospitals in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia; and at Mary Washington Healthcare in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The changes ensure visitation access by chaplains or clergy to hospital patients, HHS said in a statement.

“Today we’re making a significant announcement that balances the safety of patients with the right of patients to have clergy visitation even during a pandemic,” Roger Severino, an attorney directing the HHS Office for Civil Rights, said Tuesday in a phone call with reporters.

Federal officials say the Diocese of Arlington filed a complaint alleging a religious liberty violation in August after officials at Mary Washington Healthcare denied last rites to a patient infected with COVID-19. The patient eventually received last rites — including penance, Holy Communion and anointing of the sick in the Catholic tradition — after the civil rights office contacted Mary Washington, Mr. Severino said.

“We were pleased that [Mary Washington] was responsive to our concerns and swiftly moved to grant access to the patient for last rites,” diocesan spokeswoman Amber Roseboom said in an email to The Washington Times.

The health care provider agreed to allow visitation by clergy even in non-end-of-life settings, after consulting with HHS attorneys, Mr. Severino said.

A separate complaint prompted the Office for Civil Rights to investigate visitation policies at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton. According to the complaint, a mother claimed that officials stopped a priest in July from baptizing her newborn child, as the woman was involuntarily separated from the child due to her testing positive for COVID-19.

Tuesday’s resolution allows for clergy visits in COVID-19-impacted units and applies all 10 hospitals in the MedStar system, HHS said.

“As we work as hard as we can to save as many lives as possible. We must not forget what many people live for,” Mr. Severino said.

Neither hospital system responded to requests for comment from The Washington Times. Both systems have recently updated visitation policies, according to their websites.

MedStar permits visits by a religious leader to perform services, so long as the visitor does not provide a “disruption to care,” according to the policy posted on its website. Approved visitors must wear a mask.

Clergy visiting Mary Washington Healthcare facilities responding to a patient in a coronavirus emergency must wear personal protective equipment, including a gown, gloves, face shield, and level 1 mask, according to the health care provider’s website.

In July, HHS officials announced a similar resolution on access for clergy reached with the University of Maryland Medical System, after hospital officials denied a clerical visit to a patient injured in a motorcycle accident. Officials deemed the man’s case insufficiently serious to warrant the visit during a pandemic.

In March, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services published guidance reminding facilities to make sure that “patients have adequate and lawful access to chaplains or clergy.”

Various dioceses have announced plans to modify delivery of sacramental last rites during the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier in the year, the Archdiocese of Chicago gathered two dozen younger priests and with no preexisting conditions to volunteer to visit COVID-19 patients. In the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, one priest ministered last rites to COVID patients, without the traditional laying on of hands, through a window in the intensive care units.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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