By Rodney Drinnen, BosNewsLife Special Correspondent reporting from the United States
WASHINGTON D.C., USA (BosNewsLife)– Chaplains working at a hospice home in the U.S. state of Florida are no longer allowed to say “God”in inspirational messages to staff members, as part of a wider trend in the United States, BosNewsLife learned Saturday, March 21.
Chaplains can still use the words “Almighty God” in private sessions with patients or families at Hospice by the Sea, said the institute’s Chief Executive Officer Paula Alderson.
The move came after several police chaplains lost their jobs for praying “in Jesus name”, in the U.S. state of Virginia.
Last month, the Virginia Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted along party lines to kill a pro-faith bill which would have restored the rights of Virginia State Police Chaplains to pray publicly “in Jesus name.”
Virginia Governor Tim Kaine has his administration’s decision support for the dismissal of Virginia State Police Chaplains because they prayed publicly “in Jesus’ name.”
Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty enforced a strict “non-sectarian” prayer policy at all public gatherings, censoring and excluding Christian prayers. He also accepted the resignation of five chaplains who refused watering down their prayers, saying that would violate their their conscience.
Former Navy Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt, who lost his job in 2006 for praying in “Jesus name” had delivered nearly 7,000 paper petitions and organized a rally of 1,000 citizens “to honor Jesus and the six chaplains” outside the Governor’s mansion last fall.
In Florida, which now seems to copy the Virginia policy, hospice CEO Alderson denied she pressured staff members. She said the ban on religious reference applies only to inspirational messages delivered by chaplains in staff meetings.
“The hospice remains fully comfortable with ministers, priests and rabbis offering religious counsel to the dying and grieving. I was sensitive to the fact that we don’t impose religion on our staff, and that it is not appropriate in the context of a staff meeting to use certain phrases or ‘God’ or ‘Holy Father,’ because some of our staff don’t believe at all,” Alderson said.
Reverend Mirta Signorelli, of Royal Palm Beach, said the policy has a chilling effect that goes beyond the monthly staff meetings. She added she had to watch her language “when leading prayer in the chapel, meeting patients in the public setting of a nursing home, and in weekly patient conferences with medical as well as social workers.”
NO MENTIONING GOD
Signorelli stressed that that she and other chaplains were told to “cease and desist from using God in prayers.”
“If you take God away from me,” she said, “it’s like taking a medical tool away from a nurse.”
Signorelli is a devout Christian who acquired a master’s degree in theology after a career as a psychologist, running a program for abused and neglected children. She said her supervisor recently singled her out for delivering a spiritual reflection in the chapel that included the word “Lord” and had “a Christian connotation.”
“But that was the 23rd Psalm,” Signorelli said — not, strictly speaking, Christian, as it appears in the Old Testament.
“And I am well aware that there were people from the Jewish tradition in attendance. I didn’t say Jesus or Allah or Jehovah. I used ‘Lord’ and ‘God,’ which I think are politically correct. I think that’s as generic as you can get.”
Reverend Mirta Signorelli has subsequently resigned.
“MINOR ADMINISTRATIVE DIRECTIVE”
Alderson said she was surprised by Signorelli’s reaction to what she called “a minor administrative directive” aimed solely at improving the decorum of monthly staff meetings, where the desired tone from a chaplain should be motivational, not religious.
She said it started after she asked a chaplain — not Signorelli — to say something “inspirational” and “thought-provoking” at a staff meeting. The remarks did not strike the secular tone she wanted, Alderson said. So, “I issued some guidelines.”
Hospice by the Sea has been serving the community of Palm Beach and Broward counties since 1979, providing services to about 500 patients every day on an annual budget of $35 million, which it receives from public and private groups.
HealthCare Chaplaincy which is a multi-faith organization has guidelines that say chaplains should “reach across faith group boundaries and not proselytize”. But they don’t tell chaplains to refrain from speaking about God.
“I hope this is some sort of misunderstanding,” said Rita Kaufman, spokeswoman for the Association of Professional Chaplains, based in Schaumburg, Ill.
Hospice of Palm Beach County has not barred “God,” marketing director Karen Stearns said. It does direct chaplains to be sensitive to patients’ religious sensibilities.
“BIZARRE” POLICY ANNOUNCED
A ban on the word “God” was new to Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a religious-freedom organization based in Orlando.”That seems quite bizarre, and a significant restriction on her freedom of speech,” Staver said.
Yet the developments are music to the ears of Greg Epstein, a humanist chaplain at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, who building “a God-free model of community” that he hopes helps humanists increase in numbers and influence.
Epstein says an increasing number of people have no religion, an apparent reference to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, released last month, which claims 15 percent of respondents in 2008 said they had no religion, nearly twice the number of 1990.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
“There is a broader acceptance of those with no faith, as indicated by President Barack Obama’s mention of non-believers in his inaugural address,” Epstein told reporters.
Epstein wants to plant local humanist centers nationwide that perform many of the community-building functions of a church.”There are so many millions of people out there who basically share our views, that we’ve got room for everybody,” Epstein said. “What we’re doing here has got to grow even more.”
His movement says it combines reason, human experience, Jewish culture and ethical insights from Jewish tradition. While many humanists reject anything that hints at organized religion, Epstein is freely borrowing from it — from the “small group” format familiar in evangelical churches to calling his group a “congregation”.
Epstein said, “There are so many millions of people out there who basically share our views, that we’ve got room for everybody. What we’re doing here [at Harvard University] has got to grow even more.” (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).