House passes bill that would codify clergy’s right to visit nursing homes

Visitation couldn’t be restricted during a public health emergency

By: and - October 21, 2020 7:48 pm
House passes qualified immunity bill

Louisiana legislators convene Sept. 30, 2020, in the House of Representatives chambers at the State Capitol for a special session. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

The Louisiana House passed a bill Wednesday morning that would prevent the state health department from restricting members of the clergy from visiting patients in nursing homes and other healthcare facilities during public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the clergy have been able to visit nursing homes since the early days of the pandemic, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

Senate Bill 12, introduced by Sen. Robert Mills, R-Minden, states, in part: “The legislature declares that the purpose of this Section is to protect the religious liberty of each patient…by affording patient or resident access to members of the clergy…” The bill would also require inpatient facilities, such as nursing homes, to adopt policies allowing for clergy to visit patients.

Under the legislation, only federal law would be able to preempt the new visitation policies. The Louisiana Department of Health could not restrict visitation from clergy during an infectious disease outbreak or other similar emergency. Aside from diluting this part of the health department’s authority, practically, the bill wouldn’t give new access to clergy but would prevent the health department from removing that access in the future.

A health department directive distributed to nursing homes statewide on March 16 advised facilities of new guidance to the visitation lockdown. According to a copy of the order provided by the health department, nursing homes were advised to restrict visitation from non-essential personnel, “except for certain compassionate care situations, such as an end-of-life situation.”

The bill contains similar language but would require — not just permit — facilities to let clergy visit patients during a public health emergency whenever a patient requests such a visit. “Special consideration shall be given to patients or residents receiving end-of-life care,” the bill states.

The bill will return to the Senate for another vote.  

A similar bill was discussed in the Senate Health and Welfare committee Wednesday. House Bill 98, introduced by Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-East Baton Rouge, was deferred by the committee. 

The bill would give “access… to members of the clergy during a state of public health emergency” to hospitals and nursing homes and protect hospitals and nursing homes from liability if a visit from a priest or minister results in the spread of COVID-19. Similarly, SB 12 would also protect nursing homes from civil liability due to the novel coronavirus.

“I would rather ( Senate Bill 12) get passed than my bill get passed,” Edmonds said. “I think that’s the better way.”

Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, also pushed Edmonds to see if he knew of any hospitals that had denied access to any priest or clergy member for a patient. Edmonds didn’t answer and said he didn’t want to call out any hospitals and push blame on them. Luneau said he hasn’t heard of one priest or clergy member that was turned away by a hospital or nursing home. 

“I think (priests and other clergy are) restricted in the way everyone else has been restricted in these facilities,” Luneau said, and called the bill unnecessary.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.

JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is a former Louisiana Illuminator reporter. Prior to working with the Illuminator, Canicosa worked for Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon. Canicosa earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.