This week, the federal Department of Health and Human services announced a broadening of protections for the exercise of one’s religious freedom. In general, freedom of religion in healthcare has been in the purview of the patient: the ability for people to ensure that their medical treatment does not violate their religious practices. This week’s announcement, however, makes it clear that it is not the patient who is being considered, but the provider.
“No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice,” said the director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Roger Severino.
Let his words sink in for a moment.
According to the Department of Health and Human services, practicing one’s faith is more important than treating someone who is ill. The religious freedom of a healthcare worker – including those bound by the Hippocratic Oath – should take precedence over a patient’s right to health, possibly even over their survival. It is clear that those who will be most affected by such a change in policy are those who are already marginalized: queer and trans folk, those who are HIV positive, sex workers.
Jesus, on the sabbath, went into the synagogue where he met a man with a withered hand. Although the religious authorities were unwilling to help, Jesus healed the man, drawing the ire of those in power. (Lk 6, Mk 3, Mt 12) Faced with a religious imperative to rest, or the possibility of helping a sick person, Jesus chose to help the sick person. Consistently, throughout the Gospels, he prioritized healing over conversion; if those who were healed chose to follow him after, that was fine but it was neither required nor expected.
And when, knowing that his own death was approaching, he instructed his disciples in how to carry on this ministry, he reminded them that above all, they were to love each other as he had loved them (Jn 15). Jesus’ love often looked like treating the outsider as beloved; like breaking down the religious and cultural barriers to see common hungers, common needs, common humanity.
I wonder what Jesus the healer would think of granting protections to healthcare workers who refuse healing in his name? To the emergency room physician who allowed a trans woman to bleed from a wound entirely unrelated to her gender? To the EMT who refused to transport a lesbian patient? To the pediatrician who refused to care for a child with two moms? Jesus, who healed those whom no one else would touch; Jesus, who sought out the outcast, the marginalized for specific, intentional inclusion. Jesus, who called us to love one another as we have been loved, by him and by the God who created us all.
Religious freedom does not give anyone the right to refuse treatment to those who are sick, injured or dying, because our faith does not give us that right. Christian faith and discipleship follows in the way of the one who healed all who were in need, without exception or exclusion. Real religious freedom places us squarely on the side of those who have been outcast and marginalized; real religious freedom brings healing to those who have had it denied, or feared to seek it.
Indeed, it is true that no one should be forced to choose between treating a sick person and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, for this is not a choice that our faith requires of us. The living out of our deepest moral and religious convictions compels us to treat the sick, the injured and the dying, with all the love that Jesus himself would have given.
Rev. Eliza Tweedy is the pastor and teacher of First Church Congregational, UCC, in Rochester NH.
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