Foggy beliefs lead to church-state crisis in hospital

One of my graduate-school professors had a saying that summed up one of the central truths of church-state law in the United States of America. Your religious liberty, he liked to remind students, has been purchased for you by a lot of people with whom you would not necessarily want to have dinner. What did he mean by that?

It is rare for cases involving the beliefs of mainstream religious groups to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Methodists and Baptists and Reform Jews and other cultural mainliners rarely clash with the principalities and powers of the state because, well, their beliefs tend to be viewed as safe and normal. Most of the edgy cases that draw the borders of First Amendment law are linked to the beliefs and actions of folks whose faith claims are viewed as suspect by run-of-the-mill believers.

We're talking about Pentecostal and Christian Science believers who don't want to take their young children to see a doctor, because they believe in divine healing -- period. How about people who handle deadly snakes during worship services? Native Americans whose rites have, for generations, required them to consume mind-altering substances declared illegal by our legal authorities? How about Jehovah's Witnesses and their belief that God does not want them to receive blood transfusions (a doctrine that has led to important research into low-blood-loss surgical techniques).

Want to have dinner and talk theology with these folks?

Methinks that few journalists would answer in the affirmative. Still, it's important to know that courts have, time and time again, defended the rights of a wide range of religious groups, so long as their actions were not consistently linked to fraud, profit or a clear threat to life and health. It's this last element that has caused such fierce debates, especially when the religious beliefs of parents appear to threaten the lives and health of their own children.

Thus the key, when covering these stories, is to provide as much factual detail about the doctrines and practice of the believers at the heart of the controversy. What do they believe? What do their scriptures -- written or oral -- teach? How long has this group practiced this ritual or acted on a given doctrine in a particular way?

I thought about all of that when reading a recent Elkhart Truth article about a controversy in a local hospital. Here's the top of this hard-news report:

GOSHEN -- Joyce Gingerich, an oncology nurse at IU Health Goshen Hospital, had two options -- get a flu shot or lose her job.

It was a tough choice, but Gingerich and seven others at the hospital stood their ground and refused to receive the vaccination. ...

“I knew that I could not compromise my personal belief system for a job,” explained Gingerich, who had worked at the hospital on and off since 1987. “It was really sad to leave that job. In all my years of nursing, it was my favorite.”

In early September, IU Health Goshen Hospital informed its staff that flu shots would no longer be optional. Beginning this year, all of the hospital’s staff, affiliated physicians, volunteers and vendors are required to receive a flu vaccination or apply for an exemption. The hospital’s requirements came as a recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, the American Medical Association and other major regulatory health agencies, according to hospital spokeswoman Melanie McDonald.

“As a hospital and health system, our top priority is and should be patient safety, and we know that hospitalized people with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk for illness and death from the flu,” McDonald said. “The flu has the highest death rate of any vaccine preventable disease, and it would be irresponsible from our perspective for health care providers to ignore that.”

OK, looking at this from a religion-story point of view, as well as from a church-state legal perspective, what are the most important questions that need to be answered in this story?

Let's start with the obvious: Are her beliefs rooted in a specific, ongoing commitment to a religious tradition? What are its teachings? What scriptures or laws are linked to this conscience claim? If this person is taking this stand on her own, then how did she arrive at it.

Now, the fact that there are SEVEN nurses caught in this bind make it a near certainty that specific religious traditions and doctrines are involved.

So what do readers find out?

Gingerich does not discount the hospital’s position of wanting to protect patients from illness, but she said the flu vaccination is not right for her.

“We all have different faith walks,” said Gingerich, who describes herself as a nondenominational Christian. “I feel like in my personal faith walk, I have felt instructed not to get a flu vaccination, but it’s also the whole matter of the right to choose what I put in my body and what I feel God wants me to put in versus someone mandating what I put in. It is a very big issue for me.”

Gingerich was horrified that she was forced to choose between her beliefs and her job, but ultimately she said she knew what the right path was for her.

“I feel like our religious freedoms are being challenged and not honored in a country that supposedly has these freedoms,” she said.

That's just about all we find out, in terms of religious content. Alas.

Later on, there is this interesting and, to me, mystifying passage about the legal side of the story. Pay close attention:

Hospital staff had the option of filing medical or religious exemptions from the vaccination, so Gingerich and three others hired Alan Phillips, an attorney in North Carolina, to write exemption recommendations. Phillips said he worked with around 200 health care workers in at least 25 states on vaccine rights issues this fall.

A group at the hospital reviewed the exemption requests using guidelines provided by the CDC and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, McDonald said. One of the most common medical exemptions is for people with severe allergies to the vaccine, but religious exemptions are a little more complicated, McDonald said.

“The EEOC’s guidelines specify that just because there are beliefs that are strongly held does not mean that they are protected by a religious blanket, so social, political and economic philosophies and personal preferences, those are not religious beliefs,” McDonald explained.

So information on the crucial church-state issue covered in this story is left up to the hospital PR office? What we need here is some basic factual material from one or more church-state legal specialists, on the left and the right. They are easy to find with a search engine. Trust me.

But once again, how do readers make sense out of whether these nurses have valid "religious" beliefs, or merely "personal" beliefs, without some concrete answers to basic questions on those topics?

While the story includes some language about a belief in "natural healing," that just isn't enough.

Meanwhile, the story got picked up in The Daily Mail on the other side of the big pond and cut down to even thinner journalistic gruel there. Come on journalists, can someone ask some serious, detailed questions and report the answers?

Let me stress, once again, that readers should focus comments on the journalism issues covered in this post, not one's opinions of the nurses and their faith convictions.

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