Wednesday, November 6, 2013/lk
BREWSTER When Three Rivers Hospital notified a local doctor’s wife that she could not organize a gathering on campus to pray, it opened the door to debate over state law and religious freedom.
“I want the hospital to succeed and I’ve always been an advocate, but this is the first time I’ve had to say, ‘Just a minute, you can’t do this,’” local resident Linda Thomason said. “It’s happening everywhere, but I didn’t expect it in my own little backyard.”
Thomason had been invited to participate in a small gathering on hospital grounds to say farewell and pray for Dr. Timothy Bryant on Sept. 28, before his last shift in the emergency room.
Through a letter from the hospital’s attorney, Bryant’s wife, Luanne, was discouraged from following through with her plan.
“To me it was just really hurtful and shocking,” Luanne Bryant said. “It left me almost speechless. Is this really happening in the United States of America?
“If the administration were to just call me… I could have put them at ease. We would have been very happy to comply in any way that we could.”
However, she said there are no hard feelings, and she didn’t believe the incident reflected on “the complete administration.”
The attorney’s letter cited the hospital’s need to comply with the state Constitution. It referred to Article I, Section 11: “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.”
With regard to discrimination, the law only states that employers can’t refuse to hire someone because of their religious affiliation.
“Three Rivers Hospital is a public agency, and we have to abide by government regulations… and that’s what we were doing,” spokeswoman Rebecca Meadows said. “We were abiding by those rules.”
Thomason said the hospital has misinterpreted the Constitution.
“To me, it (the letter) was a form of bullying,” she said. In a letter to The Chronicle, she bolstered her argument with another constitutional passage, also taken from Article I: “Absolute freedom of conscience in all matters of religious sentiment, belief, and worship shall be granted to every individual.”
Meadows said the hospital’s commissioners had a “good dialogue” with Thomason during its Oct. 28 board meeting, but didn’t share further details.
The group of 19 people gathered instead at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church parking lot, 17 Hospital Way, and in the future Luanne Bryant hopes to turn this into a learning opportunity for the community as a whole.
She said the incident served as a wake-up call for her that many Christians assume there is freedom to openly practice their faith. She advocates education for everyone about religious freedom “so there’s common courtesy on both sides.
“Certainly, we don’t want to offend anybody by our Christianity,” she said, but “people need to understand where their rights are… and where their employers have rights to say, ‘That’s not proper.’”
Thomason said the Allied Defense Fund, a nationwide coalition of Christian attorneys, could host a community meeting sometime this winter to educate people on their rights as Christians.
The roots of Three Rivers Hospital can be traced back to Seventh-Day Adventist doctors, Thomason said, and the hospital even has a chapel inside.
“The people who founded the Brewster hospital, along with excellent medical care, were seeking to help others enjoy and grow in the freedom for religion, not freedom from it,” Thomason wrote in a letter to The Chronicle.
Bryant said she and her husband, who has been practicing medicine for more than 35 years, hope to stick around and continue to build bridges with the hospital.
Details haven’t been finalized yet, but “other things are on the horizon and in light of it all, the Brewster hospital is still willing to work with us in the community,” Luanne Bryant said.
Timothy Bryant closed his solo practice in Brewster in January after nearly 12 years. He was contracted to provide services for Three Rivers Hospital, more recently on a part-time basis in the emergency department.