As is often the case, the mainstream press was handed a fascinating church-state separation case today and didn't seem to realize it. Here's the top of the A1 report in the Washington Post:
President Obama mandated Thursday that nearly all hospitals extend visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians and respect patients' choices about who may make critical health-care decisions for them, perhaps the most significant step so far in his efforts to expand the rights of gay Americans.
The president directed the Department of Health and Human Services to prohibit discrimination in hospital visitation in a memo that was e-mailed to reporters Thursday night while he was at a fundraiser in Miami.
Administration officials and gay activists, who have been quietly working together on the issue, said the new rule will affect any hospital that receives Medicare or Medicaid funding, a move that covers the vast majority of the nation's health-care institutions. Obama's order will start a rule-making process at HHS that could take several months, officials said.
Now, as the battles over abortion and health-care reform made clear, there are more than a few hospitals in America that have religious titles in their names, yet they have moved past the doctrines of the groups that founded them. That's obvious and, yes, as this story noted, funds from Medicare and Medicaid have certainly helped untie some of the religious ties that, for generations, used to bind these institutions to churches.
But note that the story also said that the law would impact the "vast majority of the nation's health-care institutions."
So there are at least two interesting religion ghosts in this story (and I would argue that there are several others, too).
First, there are clearly some hospitals that have not signed up for the government funds. What do the leaders of these institutions -- especially the religious hospitals -- think of this new policy?
The second story is much trickier. What about the hospitals that are impacted, because of their government financial ties, yet are somehow linked by history and tradition to religious groups that may have doctrinal objections to this change? Do their trustees and administrators have any options? What about employees that work in these institutions? Are there any conscience clause provisions planned for them?
Now, please note that it matters little what one thinks of the core issue here. I am sure that there are plenty of people in all of these institutions that would have no problems at all making this change, if they have not made the change already. And, as the Post story noted, there are other legal options for traditionalists, other than a mandatory acceptance of gay unions:
Gay activists have argued for years that recognizing same-sex marriage would ease the stress associated with not being able to visit hospitalized partners. But opponents of same-sex marriage have called the visitation issue a red herring, arguing that advocates want to provide special rights for gays that other Americans do not have. A spokesman for one group said the president's move was part of a broader effort to appease gays and to undermine the institution of marriage.
"In its current political context, President Obama's memorandum clearly constitutes pandering to a radical special interest group," said Peter S. Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. He said that his organization does not object to gays giving their partners power of attorney but that it questions Obama's motives.
Notice that this report (interestingly enough, the Los Angeles Times took precisely the same approach and even quoted the same voice from the same conservative organization) frames this issue in terms of politics and human rights, with no mention of any religious liberty angles. Where are the hospitals? The hospital chaplains?
And what about the other side of that argument? You could argue that this story could also contain a religious-liberty angle for churches on the left that recognize gay unions. That's another perspective that should be included in the debate.
But here is my main point: Why talk to the Family Research Council, alone? Why not talk to hospital executives and trustees with faith-based medical groups and ministries that will be impacted?
It is true that the Washington Post did make some kind of attempt to reach one obvious group in the world of faith-based health care, as shown in this passing reference:
A spokesman for the American Hospital Association did not return calls and e-mails. Efforts to reach a spokesman for the Catholic Health Association of the United States were unsuccessful.
But come on.
Google "Baptist, hospital" and you get a mere 1,690,000 references (yes, I admit that many of them are international). There have to be some names and telephone numbers in there somewhere. Look for the names of trustees. Look for the names of churches involved in programs at the hospitals, then search for their telephone numbers. Call a few church-state experts on the left and right.
Come on. Just do it.