Advocacy groups challenge public hospital’s adherence to Catholic tenets
The city of St. Petersburg, Fla., and the medical center running its
public hospital violated the establishment clause by managing the facility
according to religious doctrines, a federal lawsuit contends.
The National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties
Union of Florida, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and
Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida allege that Bayfront
Medical Center entangled church and state when it agreed to operate the
hospital according to tenets of the Roman Catholic Church.
The city has leased the facility to Bayfront since 1968. In 1983,
Bayfront renewed its lease for 50 years, agreeing to pay $10 per year to
operate the facility.
In their complaint in National
Organization for Women v. City of St. Petersburg, the plaintiffs
allege that in 1997, Bayfront “entered into an alliance” — the BayCare
Health System — under which it agreed to abide by the Ethical and
Religious Directives of the Catholic Church.
The plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Marcia Cohen, calls this arrangement a
“stealth deal” that entangles government with religion.
“The city has delegated its duty to the hospital which has in turn
entangled itself with the church,” Cohen said. “Not only does this violate the
establishment clause, but it limits the health care choices of the entire
The plaintiffs are seeking “a permanent injunction barring the City
and Bayfront from continuing to operate the Bayfront facility in a manner that
is religious in nature.”
The plaintiffs say that the entanglement must stop for several
reasons. They point out that the religious tenets under which Bayfront is
operating prevent patients from receiving a variety of legal medical
procedures, including abortions, emergency contraception and artificial
“Public health services should never be forced to conform to religious
dictates,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for
Separation of Church and State, in a news release. “This arrangement violates
church-state separation by allowing one denomination to exercise control over
an essential public service.”
The litigation is complex, as the defendants both sued each other
earlier this year. The city sued Bayfront on March 30, alleging that the
medical center had caused the city to become entangled with religion. The next
day Bayfront sued the city in state court for a declaration that it was not in
violation of the establishment clause. Bayfront’s suit was later removed to
federal court. Both suits are pending.
John Wolfe, the St. Petersburg city attorney, declined to comment on
the suit filed by the advocacy groups. He did say, however, that the new suit
“contains many of the same issues” as the lawsuits between the city and
Bayfront, which he says are in mediation.
The attorneys for the hospital were out of the office and unavailable