Church to Pursue Nursing-Care Suit
US Justice Department will no longer defend federal reimbursements to Christian Scientists
The Christian Science Church vows to keep fighting a lawsuit that seeks to declare unconstitutional federal reimbursement to Christian Science nursing facilities.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The announcement came after the US Justice Department, in a surprise move, decided to switch sides in the lawsuit.
Until last week, the department had supported the position of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston. The church intervened as a defendant in a lawsuit challenging the use of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to pay the bills of elderly or low-income Christian Scientists at any of 23 Christian Science nursing facilities across the country.
But Attorney General Janet Reno concluded on Thursday that relevant portions of federal law permitting such payments are unconstitutional because they create a special benefit for members of a single religious group. She decided that the arrangement violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
A federal judge in Minnesota reached a similar conclusion in August, ruling against both the Justice Department and the Christian Science Church, which publishes this newspaper.
An appeal of the judge's decision is pending before the Eighth US Court of Appeals in St. Louis. Briefs have not yet been filed in the case, and oral arguments may not be scheduled for several months. Federal payments to Christian Science nursing facilities will continue while the issue is under appeal.
The Christian Science Church maintains that qualifying Christian Scientists are as entitled as any US taxpayer to reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid. Although church members rely on prayer for healing, rather than drugs and medical technology, they are required by law to make regular payroll deductions to support the Medicare and Medicaid systems, church officials say.
Under an accommodation written into the original Medicare and Medicaid bills, Congress provided for Christian Scientists to receive reimbursement for certain types of assistance supplied by certified Christian Science nursing facilities. It covers room and board, supplies, and nonmedical nursing care. The work of Christian Science practitioners, which consists solely of prayer, is not paid for under these programs.
"When the Medicare and Medicaid programs were enacted in 1965, Congress intended them to provide health benefits to virtually every poor and senior American," said M. Victor Westberg, a church spokesman. "In order to ensure that all those who pay taxes into these programs may benefit from them, Congress included Christian Science nursing care as part of the benefits to enable Christian Scientists to avail themselves of the programs without having to abandon their religious practices."
Although Medicare and Medicaid were set up primarily to fund medical expenses, for more than 30 years elderly and low-income Christian Scientists have been reimbursed for nonmedical nursing care under the religious accommodation to the Medicare and Medicaid laws. Because these Christian Scientists do not seek medical treatments, which are typically expensive, payments to them are modest compared with reimbursements to the average American under Medicare or Medicaid.