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