Constitutional Relapse?: Ky. Governor Should Stand Firm Against Sectarian Hospital Merger

I hope the governor stands firm. He has a solemn responsibility to meet the needs of the public, not cater to the goals of wealthy sectarian interests.

I was in Kentucky Dec. 30 for a post-Christmas visit with family when Gov. Steve Beshear announced his rejection of a hospital merger that would have put church leaders in charge of policy at a public hospital in Louisville. I like the shirts, books and other holiday loot I collected, but that was the best Christmas present of all.

Beshear blocked a proposed merger of University Hospital with hospitals owned by Catholic Health Initiatives. If he had not, medical care in Louisville would have come under the control of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which insists that all church-affiliated hospitals follow Catholic doctrines on reproductive health and end-of-life care.

Said Beshear, “After exhaustive discussions and research, I have determined that this proposed transaction is not in the best interest of the Commonwealth and therefore should not move forward. In my opinion, the risks to the public outweigh the potential benefits.”

That’s putting it mildly.

The plan would have meant that University Hospital, an affiliate of the University of Louisville, would have been forced to conduct its services under the aegis of the Catholic bishops. The hospital serves a wide range of patients -- many of them poor and  vulnerable -- yet access to birth control and other services that violate Catholic teaching would have been restricted.

Advocates of women’s health, social justice and church-state separation were rightly outraged that the scheme was even being considered.

Americans United sent a letter to the governor, Attorney General Jack Conway and Public Auditor Crit Luallen on Dec. 14 objecting to the scheme on constitutional grounds.

AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and AU Madison Fellow Brooke R. Hardy* wrote that “denial of certain services due to religious considerations – or the delegation to a religious institution of the government’s power to choose what services to provide” is “undoubtedly unconstitutional.”

In a 16-page report, Conway came to similar conclusions.

So this story has a happy ending, right? I hope so.

Today Gov. Beshear is scheduled to meet with university and Catholic hospital officials to discuss other possible arrangements that might allow the merger to go forward.

This makes me really nervous. What’s to discuss? As long as Catholic hospital representatives insist on applying church doctrine to public health care, what possible scheme would make the proposed merger constitutionally palatable?

I hope the governor stands firm. He has a solemn responsibility to meet the needs of the public, not cater to the goals of wealthy sectarian interests.

I like that late Christmas present, Governor, and so do the vast majority of Kentuckians. Don’t let anyone take it away from us.

We’ll keep you posted on developments in this important controversy.

*AU Madison Fellow Brooke R. Hardy is admitted in Georgia only. She is supervised by Alex J. Luchenitser, a member of the D.C. Bar.