JEFFERSON CITY – In 1987, Congress passed the Nursing Home Reform Act. Until that time, senior care was largely an unregulated industry. Although some providers, such as The Baptist Home, enjoyed solid reputations for quality care, the very name of the act implied reform was necessary across the industry. The Act established the following rights for nursing home residents:
1. The right to freedom from abuse, mistreatment, and neglect;
2. The right to freedom from physical restraints;
3. The right to privacy;
4. The right to accommodation of medical, physical, psychological, and social needs;
5. The right to participate in resident and family groups;
6. The right to be treated with dignity;
7. The right to exercise self-determination;
8. The right to communicate freely;
9. The right to participate in the review of one’s care plan, and to be fully informed in advance about any changes in care, treatment, or change of status in the facility; and
10. The right to voice grievances without discrimination or reprisal.
Although several states added religious freedom language to this list, the framers of the Act understood the First Amendment provided for religious freedom as a presumptive right. To these men and women, adding religious freedom would be like asking, “How many children had birth mothers?” The answer should be obvious.
During the initial COVID-19 response, emergency declarations suspended rights 4, 5 and 7. Residents could no longer socialize with other residents, family or church members. Decisions such as where to eat were removed. Mandatory COVID-19 testing removed self-determination at all COVID-19 positive facilities. The continued suspension of these rights is a growing concern.
An even greater violation is the prohibition of religious freedom in the form of pastoral care, which is a Bill of Rights violation. As in other times of national crisis, even the temporary suspension The Bill of Rights is fraught with danger. Such was the case when Executive Order 9066 established the policy of the U.S. government forcing people of Japanese descent into internment camps for the duration of World War II. When rights are suspended for a national emergency, it is the government’s responsibility to restore those rights as soon as possible.
Preventing pastors and churches from ministering to members because they are residents of a long-term care facility – which is by law their home – is a grave concern. Today’s healthcare professionals such as those employed by The Baptist Home are trained and equipped to pre-screen pastors and family, just as takes place daily for all employees. These professionals can provide the necessary instructions on the proper procedures for using Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Our staff and those in other facilities are available to assist safe, meaningful visits. To make this happen, the current CDC and state guidelines must change. I pray for a day when the COVID-19 crisis is behind us. But until that time, the church must come together with a strong voice for the rights and religious freedom of those in long term care facilities. Please join me in praying for our nation’s leaders (1 Tim 2:2) and for the continued well-being of our residents during this ongoing pandemic.