Despite new law allowing hospital clergy visits, some Arizona patients can still face difficulties

Male patient in hospital bed with heart rate monitor on his finger Gorodenkoff via Shutterstock.

A new Arizona law strengthened the ability of hospital patients to receive clergy visitors, but reports that some patients still face problems accessing clergy have prompted action from the legislator who sponsored the law.

Republican State Rep. Quang Nguyen has sent letters to hospital CEOs to encourage greater compliance, Nguyen’s office said in a March 2 statement.

In his letters, Nguyen said, “faith is the foundation that many families lean on in times of despair. It is vital to ensure that patients, when facing their darkest days, can receive the spiritual care and comfort they seek.”

Nguyen’s office has said that any member of the clergy who experiences a problem in visiting a hospital may contact his office for an original signed letter to inform hospital administrators.

The 2021 law, enacted through House Bill 2575, amended Arizona law to say that if a hospital allows in-person visits of any kind, “the hospital must facilitate the ability of clergy to visit the patient in person for religious purposes.” The law states that clergy must follow “reasonable health and safety precautions,” and that if in-person visits are suspended, “the hospital must facilitate a virtual clergy visit using communication technology.”

The Arizona measure came after many hospital systems enacted strict visitation policies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which sometimes barred clergy or other religious counselors from visiting.

Catholic practice stresses the importance of several sacraments for the sick and dying, informally known as “last rites.” These include confession, anointing of the sick, and “Viaticum,” the final reception of Holy Communion. The unbaptized may request baptism in cases of emergency, and some may seek reception into the Catholic Church.

The Arizona Catholic Conference was among the backers of the new law.

“This law is trying to help,” Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, told CNA March 2. “It’s a very difficult situation that people have experienced, especially during the pandemic, of not being able to receive the sacraments, especially at the moment of death.”

“We’re able with this law to help many patients get clergy in so that they can receive the sacraments before they die,” Johnson said. “It's just it’s very important not only to the patient but also to their surviving family members. It’s done a lot of good in that regard.”

“We also want to understand that the healthcare industry, everybody has been under a lot of stress. But we also can’t forget the humanity of people when they’re dying and the importance of the sacraments,” Johnson said.

“Unfortunately, not to paint with a broad brush, there are still circumstances where we have hospitals and health care facilities that are still denying people access to the sacraments, when clergy must be allowed in,” he added.

Johnson lamented that Catholic patients have to act to bring the law to the attention of hospital staff and administrators, “which they shouldn’t have to do.” Action on patients’ part can help them get access to clergy and the sacraments.

“But there are other times when they’re not even letting them in, and it’s extremely frustrating,” he said.

The Arizona Catholic Conference had worked with Nguyen on the 2021 law. Nguyen is helping raise awareness of the law and ensure clergy access, Johnson said.

The state Catholic conference is also working on another bill that Johnson said would “extend and possibly improve some of these protections” for places like care facilities.

CNA contacted Nguyen’s office for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

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Arizona’s five bishops welcomed the law in May 2021.

“During the pandemic, too many people have died without the spiritual assistance or sacraments desired at the end of their lives,” said their May 5, 2021 letter, which was signed by Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson; Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix; Bishop Eduardo Nevares, auxiliary bishop of Phoenix; Bishop James Wall of Gallup; and Bishop John Pazak, of the Holy Protection of Mary Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix.

At the time of their letter, the bishops lamented that there are places “where clergy are not able to have in-person visits that are requested by dying patients.”

Freedom of religious practice concerns at health care facilities led to some federal action during the pandemic.

In December 2020, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services resolved an allegation of religious discrimination in New York after a Jewish man was denied access to a rabbi and kosher food.

Access to clergy resulted in the office resolving several complaints during the pandemic. Earlier in 2020, the office resolved complaints in Virginia and Maryland that resulted in hospital systems changing their visitation policies to allow for clergy visits.

In one of those cases, the Diocese of Arlington intervened on behalf of a dying Catholic Covid-19 patient who had been denied access to a priest because of hospital visitation policies. The HHS civil rights office worked with the hospital to allow a priest inside to visit the patient before death.

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