Balancing Hospital Visitations and Religious Freedoms During a Pandemic

Steptoe & Johnson PLLC

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:

  • Visiting clergy must follow all safety policies put in place by the hospital, including COVID-19 screening protocols;
  • Visiting clergy must adhere to proper infection prevention practices, such as hand washing, physical distancing and wearing a mask;
  • Visiting clergy must complete infection control training;
  • Visiting clergy must use fit-tested Personal Protective Equipment (“PPE”);
  • Visiting clergy must sign an acknowledgement of the risks associated with visiting a patient who tested positive for COVID-19; and
  • In urgent end-of-life situations, an exception to the controls listed above may be made but visiting clergy must self-quarantine for 14 days following the visit. 
Hospitals are encouraged to review their visitation policies for compliance with a patient’s right to religious support. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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