WASHINGTON — A Catholic woman has won her case to have a priest visit her critically-injured husband at a Maryland hospital, it was announced on Tuesday.
Susanna Marcus had filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in early June, after her husband, Sidney, was critically-injured in the ICU but could not see a priest because his condition was deemed not serious enough to warrant a visit.
Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly, Maryland, had limited clergy visits to cases where the patient was at the “point-of-death,” out of concern for the COVID-19 pandemic. The HHS OCR successfully intervened on Marcus’ behalf.
It is “critically important,” said Roger Severino, head of the HHS civil rights office, that “as we work to save as many lives as possible, that we don’t forget what people live for. And an important part of that is living for their faith.”
Sidney and Susanna Marcus were riding their motorcycle in late May when they were struck by a drunk driver, resulting in Sidney being admitted to the ICU. Because of the gravity of Sidney’s condition, Susanna decided to have a priest visit him and administer the anointing of the sick.
“We believe that, in the sacraments, our souls are united to God. And I needed to know that he [Sidney] had access to that,” Susanna Marcus told reporters on Tuesday in an HHS OCR conference call.
However, the hospital limited clerical visits to only cases of imminent death, out of concern for the contagiousness of the virus; because Marcus was not judged to be at the point of death, he was denied access to a priest.
“Spiritual needs don’t only exist at the point of death,” Severino told reporters on Monday.
Marcus’ family filed a complaint with the HHS OCR; about four weeks later, the hospital granted Sidney Marcus access to a priest, an HHS staffer said on Tuesday.
Shortly afterward, the University of Maryland Medical System changed its policies for clergy visits at all 13 hospitals in its system, HHS said. Patients in COVID-19 positive sections can see a member of the clergy in “compassionate care” or end-of-life situations; patients in non-COVID sections can receive clergy at any time. Clergy must wear personal protective equipment.
The HHS civil rights office also resolved a second religious freedom case, stemming from a complaint filed by representatives for a medical student on rotation at Staten Island University Hospital.
The student was told to shave his beard, which he kept for religious reasons, because it would affect the seal of his N95 respirator mask which was worn to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The student had previously passed a fit-test for the mask by wearing a beard gown underneath it, but he was still instructed by the hospital to shave his beard.
After the intervention of the HHS civil rights office, the student and the hospital were able to reach an agreement by being provided a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) by the hospital, which enabled him to keep his beard while maintaining an acceptable seal around his nose and mouth.
“This was a win-win situation,” Severino said on Tuesday. “We hope to see this as a model for future situations.”
The resolutions show that public health and religious practice are not at odds during the pandemic, Severino said.
“We can protect people’s physical safety, and their spiritual and emotional well-being at the same time,” he said.
“Those two things are not in tension, and when we protect both, we actually protect the mental health as well as the physical health. We want to treat people as an integrated human being.”