The Supreme Court today refused to bar public hospitals from keeping chaplains on their payrolls.
The court, without comment, turned away arguments in an Iowa case that spending taxpayer money for a hospital chaplain’s job violates the constitutionally required separation of church and state.
Three atheists had challenged the $23,000-a-year chaplain’s position maintained by Polk County’s Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines.
Larry Henry Carter, his daughter, Courtney, and Maurice LaBelle said their rights were violated because the government was sponsoring religious activity.
In a 1983 decision, the Supreme Court said paying chaplains to lead daily prayers in Congress and state legislatures is constitutional.
The court cited a long tradition, 200 years old in the case of Congress, to support its ruling.
The Iowa atheists noted that the chaplain at Broadlawns, Maggie Alzeno Rogers, was hired in 1985 and that her duties are more than ceremonial.
A deacon of the United Church of Christ, Rogers counsels patients, their families and hospital workers and conducts religious services and Bible study classes at the hospital.
The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said her duties serve a secular purpose, enhancing the hospital’s “holistic treatment approach.”
“The purpose of the chaplaincy was the same as that of the hospital generally, to help patients get well or at least to provide the best care possible for those who would not get well,” the appeals court said.
The 8th Circuit Court also said Rogers may have reduced church-and-state entanglement at the hospital because there is less need for officials to supervise volunteer chaplains who worked there before she was hired.
It is part of Rogers’ job to make sure that the volunteer chaplains are not proselytizing, the appeals court said.
In other matters, the court:
--Heard arguments in cases from Missouri and Kentucky on the validity of capital punishment for murderers who committed their crimes before reaching age 18.
--Agreed to use a Pennsylvania case to restudy how far states may go in limiting a jury’s discretion to choose life or death for convicted murderers.
--Let stand a $300,000 award won by Oregon’s former chief medical officer from the State Health Division’s administrator who fired him over an alleged “slush fund.”