US can fund nonmedical nursing care

The US Supreme Court is allowing continued federal funding for Christian Science nursing care.

The court, without comment, yesterday turned down an appeal that claimed Medicare and Medicaid payments to church-affiliated health centers violate the constitutional separation of church and state. A taxpayer group has tried to stop the payments.

The First Church of Christ, Scientist teaches that prayer is the most effective treatment for illness and that conventional medicine is incompatible with spiritual healing.

Although Christian Science nurses use no drugs or conventional medical treatments, accredited nursing facilities have received millions of dollars in federal Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements since the mid-1960s. Church officials say the money pays for general nonmedical care such as bandages, but not prayer.

In 1996, a federal judge ruled that the payments were unconstitutional, as had been challenged by Children's Health Care Is a Legal Duty Inc., or CHILD. At the time, federal law contained an exception allowing coverage for nonmedical care at healthcare centers operated or certified by the Church of Christ, Scientist.

The following year, Congress rewrote the law, allowing payments to "religious nonmedical healthcare institutions." But CHILD sued anew.

Last year, the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the new arrangement is constitutional. It is "sect-neutral" and neither promotes one religion nor imposes a burden on another, a divided appeals panel ruled.

CHILD appealed to the Supreme Court. "Tens of millions of Medicare and Medicaid dollars have been paid by the federal government directly into the coffers of the Christian Science Church's sanatoria for the nonmedical care of its members by faith-healers," lawyers for the group wrote in filings.

The church, which publishes this newspaper, urged the Supreme Court to stay out of the case, as did the Justice Department.

Overturning the 1997 law "would impose extraordinarily harsh consequences" on poor and elderly Americans who rely upon nonmedical healthcare as a matter of religious conscience and who have paid into the system, the church court filing said.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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