ALEGAL battle over whether federal funds can be used to finance care in Christian Science nursing facilities took another twist last week when a federal district court in Minnesota allowed The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston, to intervene and become a co-defendant in the case.
In January a nonprofit children's lobby group based in Iowa filed suit against two officers of the Department of Health and Human Services, including HHS chief Donna Shalala, responsible for administering an estimated $7.5 million in Medicare and Medicaid funds to 26 Christian Science nursing facilities across the country.
Christian Science is a religion that includes a system of spiritual health care. Since Medicare's inception in the early 1960s, the independently run nursing facilities certified by the church have received funds under a religious exemption that was part of the original federal statutes.
The plaintiffs, CHILD Inc., seek to end the funds now given to the facilities on behalf of patients, arguing that because The First Church of Christ, Scientist is the body certifying such facilities, the program is an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state under the First Amendment.
Lawyers for The Mother Church in Boston say the federal statutes are constitutional. They point out that Christian Scientists have paid taxes to fund the Medicare program for many years, that they assumed Medicare was available to them, and that as a matter of fairness they should not be denied benefits for their own care in time of need.
Medicare payments cover hospitalization benefits and optional health insurance for elderly and disabled Americans. Medicaid is a system of grants to the states for medical care for the needy.
Also, the church argues that while Christian Science practitioners (spiritual healers) do not receive Medicare or Medicaid funds, nursing facilities that offer nonmedical physical care can be seen as a reasonable accommodation to the Constitution's right of free exercise of religion.
The church asked to intervene in the case last month after CHILD Inc. on March 1 filed in the court for summary judgment - an early court judgment in its favor.
The government and the church, in turn, plan to file on May 3 motions for summary judgment in opposition to the plaintiffs. In a development last Friday, CHILD Inc. was supported in a friend-of-the-court brief by the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union.
Currently, the federal court plans to hear arguments from all parties to the case on June 4.