The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took two important steps Tuesday to protect religious freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The agency’s Office for Civil Rights announced that patients at hospitals within the University of Maryland Medical System may receive visits by clergy amid the pandemic.

And, the office said, a medical student at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City may follow his religious belief by not shaving his beard despite having to wear a mask.  

“We can protect people’s physical safety and their spiritual and emotional well-being at the same time,” Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “Those two things are not in tension and when we protect both, we actually protect the mental health as well as the physical health.” 

“Religious liberty doesn’t cease to be a fundamental human right during a pandemic,” Ryan T. Anderson, a research fellow specializing in religious liberty at The Heritage Foundation, said in an email to The Daily Signal. “As these HHS resolutions demonstrate, we can combat COVID-19 and respect religious liberty.” 

In the case prompting the first decision, Sidney and Susanna Marcus were airlifted to Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly, Maryland, after a motorcycle accident May 25. 

Her husband’s injuries were more severe than hers, Susanna Marcus explained on Tuesday’s conference call, placing him in the hospital’s intensive care unit for an extended period. 

Susanna Marcus requested that a priest visit her husband because she was “very fearful for his condition,” she said. 

She and her husband are Catholic, she said, and “believe that in the sacraments our souls are united to God’s.”

“I needed to know that he had access to that,” she said. “And when I was told that no priests were allowed, I was able to contact HHS and was connected to the best people … and finally Sidney was able to have access to a priest and to the sacrament.”  

The Office for Civil Rights and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services worked with the University of Maryland Medical System to ensure that patients have access to clergy and chaplains during the pandemic, Severino said. 

The University of Maryland Medical System updated visitation guidelines for all 13 of its hospitals to allow patients, including those in COVID-19 care units, to receive visits from pastors, priests, or other clergy—provided they wear the appropriate personal protective equipment. 

In an email Tuesday night to The Daily Signal, Michael Schwartzberg, media relations director for the University of Maryland Medical System, said: 

After we became aware of an issue regarding clergy visitation for a patient who was potentially nearing the end of [his] life, we engaged in extensive discussion with key stakeholders including legal counsel on how to best accommodate situations that require exceptions to our visitation policy while not compromising the safety of others. 

We have since amended our policy, with all individuals visiting a COVID-19 positive patient provided a form acknowledging the risk, and will allow clergy visits with adherence to safety protocols.

HHS would like to see other states and hospital systems follow University of Maryland Medical System’s lead, Severino said. 

“It’s a tragedy when people are deprived of the ability to have access to their faith practices,” he told reporters.

The Office for Civil Rights also acted to protect the faith practices of the New York City medical student in June, leading to the second announcement Tuesday. 

The unnamed student was set to do rotations at Staten Island University Hospital during the summer. Hospital supervisors asked him to shave his beard before getting fitted for an N95 protective mask, but the student explained that he could not do so because of his religious beliefs. He was told he could not return to rotations until he shaved. 

The Office for Civil Rights worked with the student and the hospital to find an alternative that “provides greater protection than an N95 mask and would allow for a facial beard,” HHS said in a press release

Patients and health care providers “have [an] interest in religious freedoms, and both should be accommodated and protected to the extent possible,” Severino said.