BOSTON — Medicare and Medicaid laws that permit payments to Christian Science nursing facilities were ruled "unconstitutional, invalid, and unenforceable," by a federal court in Minneapolis Wednesday. If upheld, the ruling would bar government reimbursement to Christian Science health-care facilities nationwide.
The decision came in a suit brought by CHILD (Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty), an Iowa-based advocacy group, against the administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration, a federal agency, and the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, publisher of this newspaper, joined the suit as a defendant.
Plaintiffs note that most health-care providers are required to meet statutory and regulatory standards from which Christian Science nursing facilities are exempted.
They assert that Congress's creation of such exemptions to regulations violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. CHILD sought a permanent injunction to bar Medicare and Medicaid payments to Christian Science facilities. Christian Science nursing facilities provide room and board, supplies, and basic nonmedical nursing services to ill or injured Christian Scientists relying on prayer alone for healing.
In a 45-page decision, Judge Richard Kyle noted the "laudable purpose behind the exemptions," but added: "The Christian Scientists are not receiving benefits which are unavailable to outsiders - other recipients of Medicaid and Medicare are aided by government payment for bed and board, and for nursing services and supplies. They are receiving these benefits, however, by virtue of acts of the federal government which apply to only one religious group.
"Legislative accommodation of religious beliefs is a valuable and worthy enterprise, but here, applying Supreme Court precedent, the accommodation has gone too far, and too strongly favors the convictions of one particular sect."
A church spokesman, M. Victor Westberg, said: "The Mother Church agrees with the proposition expressed in this case by the US Department of Justice which contended that these laws are fully consistent with applicable constitutional requirements."
In announcing he would stay the effect of the ruling pending appeal, Judge Kyle said: "The Court is fully aware of the impact of its ruling. Exemptions on which Christian Scientists and the Church have relied for more than 25 years have been determined to be invalid. The consequences for past, current, and future patients at Christian Science sanatoria may be substantial...."
The church will "vigorously defend these statutes in the Court of Appeals," Westberg said. While the appeal proceeds, federal reimbursement of Christian Science nursing facilities will operate without interruption.