Nov 05 2009

Paying for Prayer in Health Care

As the health care debate rages in Washington, one of the fears is that the behemoth bills that are being passed around might contain hidden provisions that can cause great mischief. While there is a sense of urgency about passing a bill (any bill) there is something to be said for taking the time to pick over the details of such important policy.

Case in point – Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has slipped in a provision to the bill that would require reimbursement for prayer services. Although not mentioned by name, it is thought that the provision is aimed at Christian Science prayer. Christian Scientists, based upon the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, do not believe in medicine – because they do not believe in illness – because they do not believe in reality. We are purely spiritual beings, they believe, and physical reality is all an illusion, and therefore all illness is as well and is really just a crisis of faith. Therefore prayer and faith is all that is needed. Seeking medical attention is actually a failure of faith and will lead to illness or death (one wonders why any Christian Scientist needs to wear glasses, then). This philosophy worked very well for Eddy, right up until the point where she died.

Christian Scientists have been tireless in promoting their spiritual prayer as legitimate medical interventions for years. They have pressured some private insurance companies to reimburse for their prayers, although this trend has reversed recently with managed care. They have also lobbied for state laws to protect their practitioners from being prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. Worst of all, they successfully lobbied the Federal government to cover Christian Science prayer for military personnel.  Now they are at work trying to exploit health care reform to further their agenda. The LA Times reports:

The spiritual healing provision was introduced in the House by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), whose district includes a Christian Science school, Principia College.

The measure is also supported by Senator John Kerry and the late Edward Kennedy – both senators from Massachusetts, home of the headquarters of the church.

This proposed measure raises several concerns. First – prayer is not legitimate medicine, despite the church’s insistence that it is. People are free, of course, to prayer for whomever they wish. But the publicly supported and paid for health care system must be based upon reliable evidence. Otherwise there is no mechanism to ensure a standard of care or to limit costs.

Payments for Christian Science prayer specifically will not add much to overall health care costs directly, but any money wasted at this time should not be tolerated. But of course there is nothing in the provision that limits reimbursement to Christian Science prayer – it simply says that reimbursement cannot discriminate against religious practices. This would open the door for any individual or organization to charge the government for any religious practice that it claims is meant to treat illness. This would be open-season for quackery.

This provision would also further legitimize a practice that is dangerous and potentially fatal. There are numerous cases, for example, of children who were allowed to die horrible deaths at the hands of Christian Science practitioners (and other faith healers).

There is also, of course, the issue of the separation of church and state. Our constitution entreats the federal government (and by extension the states) that they “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Paying for religious prayer would certainly qualify.

The Center for Inquiry is pushing a campaign to write your congressmen and senators to oppose this provision. Unfortunately, Christian Scientists already have a well-organized lobby, and they have written far more letters to Congress than those opposing the provision. Letter writing is important, but it is unlikely we will win this battle with numbers. I urge you to write your representative none-the-less, as well-reasoned opposition will likely carry some weight.

Already the provision is having some problems. Speaker Nancy Pelosi stripped the provision from the House bill over fear that it was unconstitutional. However, Hatch is a powerful Senator and such provisions have a tendency to sneak back into bills as they wander from committee to committee. This means we need to remain vigilant, to keep the issue in the public eye, and make it clear that it is unacceptable for the government to pay for prayer as a substitute for legitimate health care.

In fact, we should use this opportunity to go on the offensive – to ask not only for this provision to stay out of any health care reform bill, but for an alternate provision to be put in place saying that the government will not reimburse for prayer. Maybe we can reverse the military’s reimbursement for prayer services, or the IRS deduction for prayer as a medical expense.

My colleagues and I are trying to keep an eye on this and similar measures as health care reform blazes forward, but it’s not easy, and ultimately we will need the support of the “reality-based community” to protect health care from this kind of dangerous quackery.

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Paying for Prayer in Health Care”

  1. Draalon 05 Nov 2009 at 10:59 am

    Me being completely ignorant here, but… Doesn’t counseling fall under something that health insurance covers? Relabeling a ‘prayer service’ as ‘counseling’ isn’t that far of a stretch. (I am assuming counseling is reimbursable in some form or another)

    For example, an alcoholic (strictly as an out of the air example) is in need of counseling and treatment. Hypothetically, couldn’t a religiously-affiliated facility, with trained and qualified counselors, provide adequate counseling to a group of alcoholics and throw in a prayer or two? Those same ‘counselors’ could also provide services for all sorts of other issues. Another example, say you have cancer, and it’s causing stress, isn’t ‘counseling’ potentially part of the treatment?

    My point is, the term ‘prayer service’ may disappear but it may pop up again in sheep’s clothing. A game of ‘wack-a-prayer’ (as in ‘wack-a-mole) is sure to evolve.

    I’m not in favor of certain religious values gaining government funding. Bush’s “abstinence” program makes me sick to think about the monumental waste of money it was (still is?).

  2. Eternally Learningon 05 Nov 2009 at 11:52 am


    As much as I agree with your article, I think that fighting this fight is akin to fighting the symptom and ignoring the cause. Citizens spend so much effort fighting for important issues like this, but I think that if we all stopped working on the small stuff and instead focused on why crap like this is allowed to be passed in the first place we might get farther faster. Right now we have some bad/stupid people making a bad decision. I think that the best we could hope for in this situation would be to pester them into making the right one. Then who’s to say they won’t just do it again about some other issue? The thing that scares me is that Pelosi says that she was worried the measure wasn’t constitutional. I agree, but why is it that there is no one to check these things before massive bills are passed? If it is unconstitutional, then why would it be allowed in at all? The system is screwed up. I think that the issues we need to focus on are term limits, and campaign reform. I also think that a healthy pay cut would go a long way to making sure that those who represent us, do it for the right reasons.

    That is a complicated issue, and the comment section here is probably not the best forum, but to stay on topic with the article I would simply say that I can’t see why the government should be spending any of our money on something that cannot be proven to be effective. Maybe a simple solution to crap getting snuck into these bills would be to read them out loud before they are passed:

  3. Steven Novellaon 05 Nov 2009 at 11:59 am

    Draal – They may try, but I don’t think that is a real risk. As you yourself say – “if” they are providing legitimate counseling services by licensed counselors, then it does not matter if the group, or hospital, or whatever is religious. Catholic hospitals can charge for surgery also.

    You just cannot have a line item you charge for that says “prayer – $20”

    And the prayer they are talking about is not just a form of counseling – it would include prayer as a medical intervention to treat disease.

    EL – I am all for reforming the political system. But I don’t think any system is proof against this kind of thing, and so we will always be fighting these battles.

  4. jacekon 05 Nov 2009 at 12:33 pm

    The Secular Coalition has been making lobbying inroads.

    It looks like the language has been stripped from the house bill.

  5. Smedon 05 Nov 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Could someone please link to the bill itself and the section that includes the prayer statements?

  6. lostmountainson 05 Nov 2009 at 2:39 pm

    I can’t imagine being forced to pay for adults to abuse children and each other by denying proper medical treatment and sense. This is so offensive, I can’t understand how grown adults can actually support something like this making it into legislation, its so irresponsible and reprehensible it makes me feel ill.

    I also wasn’t aware that prayer came with a price tag…is it sort of a compensation for time spent praying instead of working? In that case, if these people do in fact take so much time out of their work day to pray, because they believe that doing so will encourage God to heal them by displaying their devotion, then shouldn’t it be even BETTER to sustain that sacrifice of paid work hours? If you’re trying to show God how MUCH you are devoted to him by spending all yours hours praying, wouldn’t your lord not like that you are getting subsidized to do so by a nation of infidels, to save your own wallet?

  7. Eternally Learningon 05 Nov 2009 at 3:00 pm


    I completely agree that there will always be battles like this to be fought and that no system will likely ever be perfect, but right now our government is practically designed to let crap like this in through ear marks and people with too much influence and power, and not enough objective reasoning skills. As long as our representatives are enticed to serve their own interests more than those that they represent, we are guaranteed more crap like this being shoved through at an alarming rate. If we can revamp the system to allow the people to have actual representation, I think that we will be all the better. I definitely don’t think that we should ignore these problems, but it seems to me like the American people are being divided and conquered by greedy and corrupt politicians. If we can unite behind changes that everyone can agree on then we stand a much better chance of changing things.

  8. TsuDhoNimhon 05 Nov 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Great! This means Navajo medicine men can collect for their healing ceremonies too! Other tribes’ ceremonies, even voudoun ceremonies can be covered … because as you know, the government can’t single out a religion for coverage or not coverage.

  9. HHCon 05 Nov 2009 at 3:55 pm

    I just sent a letter off to my U.S. Congresswoman, Melissa Bean.
    I truly appreciate your discussion about Christian Science as I spent some time trying to read and figure out what Ms. Eddy from the 19th century was selling. On the record and based on her works she counts her evils to include medicine, and alternative world faiths that don’t center on her Christ. As I stated before Christianity demands human sacrifice as a core tenet of its beliefs. Ms. Eddy’s version of “Christian” Science would fail to meet these expectations if it deviated from this goal.

  10. GHcoolon 05 Nov 2009 at 4:07 pm

    I just sent a letter to my representatives:

  11. AmoebaLasVegason 06 Nov 2009 at 8:35 pm

    We have a site in Australia called “Open Australia” (go here:

    In their own words: “OpenAustralia is the website which makes it easy for people to keep tabs on their elected representatives in Parliament.”

    Do you have something similar in the US?

    All I have to do is type in some key words like “education” and they will send me links whenever that word is mentioned in parliament.

  12. Exquisitimon 16 Nov 2009 at 8:24 pm

    If we allow coverage of such claims then we are not just wasting money but we are supporting all the charlatans out there who prey on the weak and ignorant when they are vulnerable.

    I know our country has a long tradition of wasting tax payer money but we should still try to do no harm with the money we waste.

  13. isaoneon 19 Nov 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Thanks everyone for all your efforts on this one. I just got the word that the Senate Bill no longer has this provision included. The bill that was passed in the House had that sections removed before passage so we have effectively killed it.

    The email I received on this is from Rita Swan who runs Childrens Healthcare Is A Legal Duty Inc ( Rita and her husband have been tirelessly working to remove the laws (currently in 30 states) which provide legal protection for parents who damage/kill their children through religious practices in place of medical care. Sadly enough the Swans came to this cause after falling prey to their religion (Christian Science) and losing their 16 month old son.

    I strongly recommend that everyone support Rita’s group and join her in the struggle. For the moment though let us bask in the glow of preventing at least on more legal woo woo .

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