Faith, Health and the Constitution

A group that favors church-state separation challenges U. of Minnesota program on role of religion in healing.
July 28, 2005

There is much debate -- and it is frequently heated -- about whether a person's faith can help heal sickness.

After tiptoeing into that controversial territory, the University of Minnesota has been forced to backtrack in the face of a lawsuit by a group that opposes the intertwining of religion and government. But controversy lingers over the university's involvement in a clinical graduate program on the intersection of faith and health, which Minnesota officials insist they will not offer in a way that violates the Constitution.

In 2002, the university's Academic Health Center joined with Luther Seminary, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and Fairview Health Services, a health care organization, to form the Minnesota Faith Health Consortium. Among the group's goals, according to its Web site, were increasing understanding of the links between religious faith and health, and "enhancing leadership capacity to link faith and health."  

One way the consortium planned to do that was by developing the Faith/Health Clinical Leadership program, a set of three courses jointly sponsored by the university, the seminary and Fairview. Materials promoting the program, which was originally supposed to be offered beginning this year, described it as a "pioneering effort" to "prepare students from a variety of professional backgrounds for a role in faith/health leadership."

That description caught the eye of officials at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin based group that advocates for the separation of church and state. A lawsuit the group filed in March charged that the public university's involvement in the consortium and the clinical leadership program violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government endorsement of religion.

"In our opinion this entangles a public university and religion inextricably," says Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation's executive director.

This month, the university quietly withdrew from the Faith Health Consortium, citing the lawsuit. But Gaylor calls that step "empty" because the university remains involved in the clinical leadership program.

She cites materials Minnesota produced about the courses and their curriculums this spring, which describe one of the three courses, "Healer's Journey," as letting students "reflect on their own personal, professional, and spiritual values as a means of assisting others to use their own spiritual background for enhancing their own well-being and healing."

Mark B. Rotenberg, Minnesota's general counsel, said he believed the foundation was "jumping the gun" in deciding the constitutionality of courses that Minnesota has yet to offer to any students. He noted that plans for what it would cover are still under discussion -- and that lawyers for the Freedom From Religion Foundation are involved in those deliberations.

"I am interested in listening respectfully to the plaintiffs' complaints about what they believe the course may be, and we are prepared to make any modifications that are appropriate," said Rotenberg. "They believe the course constitutes an unconstitutional entangling with religion, and of course we're not going to allow that. It is unquestionable that the university will not be engaging in proselytizing, religious advocacy, or promoting a religious perspective." 

Rotenberg said the university's caution about making sure that the clinical program is constitutional does not mean its officials believe that a public university must entirely avoid discussion of religion and its role in health.

"While it's certainly important, required even, that we steer clear of proselytizing, advocating, or even encouraging particular religious perspectives or viewpoints, it absolutely is possible for the university to offer a course that engages students who may come to these questions from a particular faith perspective," he said.

Rotenberg threw out a hypothetical: Let's say the university developed a course that took as its thesis that "patients who have a deep faith are more likely to be successful in their course of treatment than patients who do not," he said. "Clearly it would be inappropriate for the university to officially take a position on that; first of all, it's unknowable, and even if it were, it would be taking a position on a faith proposition.

"But it's not at all problematic," Rotenberg said, "to have a discussion of that question."

He added: "We are not at all unmindful of the constitutional limitations here. But it's too easy to say you can't talk about faith in the health sciences. I don't think that's what the Constitution requires."


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