Civil Rights Groups File Lawsuit Over Public Hospital Run By Religious Directives Of Catholic Bishops

Religious Control Over Florida Hospital Violates Separation Of Church And State, Federal Lawsuit Says

Four national advocacy organizations, along with four concerned community residents, filed a federal lawsuit today against the City of St. Petersburg, Bayfront Medical Center and BayCare Health System over the operation of a public hospital under religious doctrines.

The suit charges that direct and indirect support of the hospital with taxpayer funds violates the separation of church and state because the medical facility operates under the religious tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, an unconstitutional religious entanglement for the city-owned hospital.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Inc., Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Organization for Women Foundation, Inc. and Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, Inc. Local Pinellas County residents Jeanie Blue, Beth Lindenberg, Lee DeCesare and Irene Miller are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Attorneys in the case are Marcia S. Cohen of St. Petersburg, Florida, lead counsel, and Prof. Mark R. Brown of Stetson University College of Law. They are joined by Ayesha Khan, Litigation Counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Kim Gandy, counsel for the National Organization for Women Foundation. The National Women's Law Center is providing assistance in the case as part of its national health care provider merger project.

"Public services should never be forced to conform to religious dictates," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This arrangement violates church-state separation by allowing one denomination to exercise control over an essential public service.

"Other communities are facing this problem as well," continued Lynn, "so this case could set important national precedent."

Since 1968, St. Petersburg has agreed to allow the city-owned medical facility to be run by Bayfront Medical Center. Problems began, however, in 1997 when Bayfront entered into an alliance with several other hospitals in the Tampa area, including religiously run hospitals. 

To implement its new alliance, Bayfront agreed to operate the city's hospital according to the "Ethical and Religious Directives" of the Roman Catholic Church.  After the agreement, staff at the publicly owned and supported facility, including physicians, employees, volunteers, students and other contracted agents, were expected to sign a statement expressing a commitment to follow the ethical directives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as applied to Bayfront.

Under the directives, patients are restricted from receiving a variety of legal medical procedures, including "abortion, sterilization, emergency contraception and artificial insemination." The directives also may limit the full implementation of patients' wishes identified in living wills to the extent they do not comport with Catholic doctrine.

"It is unconstitutional for a religious gatekeeper to determine the nature of health care services in a public hospital," said local attorney Cohen. "Bayfront serves patients of many different faiths and backgrounds whose religious freedom must be protected. Their health care choices should be based on the best medical advice, not on religious restrictions."

The suit, filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, asks that the court find reliance on the religious directives at the public hospital to be unconstitutional and prohibit the facility from being run according to religious dictates in the future.  The lawsuit also alleges that the Joint Operating Agreement of the hospitals in the BayCare alliance, including Bayfront, was negotiated in private, violating Florida's open meetings law, and that Bayfront's refusal to provide various documents requested under Florida's public records law violates that law as well.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.