June 1, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Those of us who find intercession ("prayer for others") to be a high point in worship have something new about which to be concerned. Lifting up the names of service people in danger, collegians away from home, and people traveling is an act that usually culminates with mention of the seriously ill. But regular worshipers may have recently noticed that the prayer leader is now less likely to inform God or the people as to the nature of the prayed-for's affliction. And if divulged, the permission of the person named must be sought first and caution taken about details given out in public. Worshippers may also have noticed similar discretion in parish newsletters and the "Sunday bulletin." Why?
Blame or credit HIPAA, the newest acronym to keep clergy and their associates on edge and their lawyers busy. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is certainly well intentioned. Many people lose their jobs, suffer stigma, are set back in their recovery, or have their well-guarded sense of privacy invaded when news of their illness spreads, whether in secular settings or in synagogue and church communities. What used to be a hazard in respect to taste now brings a legal risk. Handle with care! HIPAA has even been interpreted as a barrier for clergy and lay prayer- and care-givers who would like to call on members in clinics and hospitals.
Bill Broadway, a religion writer for The Washington Post National Weekly Edition (May 10-16), does such givers a service (and now Sightings readers) by calling attention to the United Methodist Church's website, which applies HIPAA to a local church context for the benefit of the curious or frightened. Richard Hammar, who publishes Church Law and Tax Report in his capacity as counsel for the Assemblies of God, offers more. Just in time.
Broadway features the story of a church organist in Cleveland who was "greeted" in a parish newsletter. Unfortunately, the news-bringing overstepped by describing the organist's setback as "bi-polar illness" and depression. No-go. Happy as the welcomers were, the organist had to be unhappy. He sued and settled out of court, but lost his job and, he said, his self-respect, his image, and the relishing of his recovery. Worst of all, the church's web-site posting meant that the organist's name and diagnoses now belong eternally to cyberspace and those who cruise in it.
Here, as is so often the case, we recognize how, in the age of information, the ease of communication gets complicated and causes the need for more communication. Instruments meant to enhance the experience of community in religion can also disrupt it. We also recognize that laws of the state can overrule laws or practices of the churches, that the lines of "separation of church and state" are ever more wavy, that some illnesses still occasion stigmatizing, that good intentions do not always serve the religious well, and that you can't be too careful nowadays.
Someone's ill? Pray in secret and don't tell anyone may be the next counsel.