'Spiritual health care' raises church-state concerns

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009

The calls come in at all hours: patients reporting broken bones, violent coughs, deep depression.

Prue Lewis listens as they explain their symptoms. Then Lewis -- a thin, frail-looking woman from Columbia Heights -- simply says, "I'll go to work right away." She hangs up, organizes her thoughts and begins treating her clients' ailments the best way she knows how: She prays.

This is health care in the world of Christian Science, where the sick eschew conventional medicine and turn to God for healing. Christian Scientists call it "spiritual health care," and it is a practice they are battling to insert into the health-care legislation being hammered out in Congress.

Leaders of the Church of Christ, Scientist, are pushing a proposal that would help patients pay someone like Lewis for prayer by having insurers reimburse the $20 to $40 cost.

The provision was stripped from the bill the House passed this month, and church leaders are trying to get it inserted into the Senate version. And the church has powerful allies there, including Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who represents the state where the church is based, and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who said the provision would "ensure that health-care reform law does not discriminate against any religion."

But opponents of spiritual care coverage -- a coalition of separation-of-church-and-state advocates, pediatricians and children's health activists -- say such a provision would waste money, endanger lives and, in some cases, amount to government-funded prayer.

"I think if most Americans knew what's being proposed on this issue, they would be shocked," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

As the health-care debate enters its final stages, the clash over spiritual care has become essentially a referendum about whether the government recognizes prayer as a legitimate and viable health-care option.

Lewis, 66, works out of a small rented space in Northwest Washington, but her real office is her cellphone. She sleeps with the phone tucked under her pillow at night.

She doesn't see most of the patients she treats. That isn't necessary, she said, for her prayers to be effective.

Each prayer is a cerebral search for resolution to the patient's problem. And the answer often comes in the form of an idea or feeling: "God is here," "God is life," "We are created in God's perfect image."

Such thoughts, she said, drive out the fear causing the sickness: fear of pain, death, hopelessness. And as she and her patients reconnect with God, healing comes naturally.

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