Balancing Hospital Visitations and Religious Freedoms During a Pandemic

By: Kristen Andrews Wilson, Aleah M. Schutze

Published: October 28, 2020

On October 20, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) settled two religious discrimination complaints involving access to clergy during the Public Health Emergency. Both complaints arose from a hospital’s failure to permit visits by religious clergy due to COVID-19 visitor restrictions. In the first complaint, a COVID-19 positive new mother requested that a priest visit her newborn son and baptize him. Due to its restrictive visitor’s policy, the hospital refused. In the second complaint, a priest was denied ICU access in order to provide Catholic religious sacraments to an end-of-life patient.

In connection with resolution of the complaints, OCR provided technical assistance and guidance to the hospitals in order to strike a balance between protecting the hospital’s staff, visitors, and patients and respecting the patient’s right to religious support. OCR approved the following requirements for visiting clergy:

Hospitals are encouraged to review their visitation policies for compliance with a patient’s right to religious support. For questions related to policies related to hospital visitation during the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact one of the authors of this alert.

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