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Fla. Hospital Drops Catholic Controls To Stop AU Lawsuit.

A non-profit hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., that operates on city-owned property has agreed to end its partnership with Roman Catholic medical centers in the area and drop restrictive church doctrines covering issues like abortion and birth control.

Bayfront Medical Center became the target of a lawsuit by Americans United and allied groups last year when, in an attempt to solve financial woes, it entered into an alliance with several Catholic hospitals called the BayCare Health System. BayCare officials demanded that Bayfront adopt a series of Catholic health care directives that ban all abortion, forbid distribution or discussion of contraceptives and institute Catholic rules concerning end of life issues. (See "Emergency!," October 2000 Church & State.)

Formerly a city-owned institution, Bayfront is now run by a private, nonprofit group but pays an annual $10 lease to the city. In return, the hospital is expected to operate in the public interest and offer care regardless of "sex, race, color or creed."

To join the Catholic alliance, Bayfront had to agree to ban elective abortions. Hospital officials were not upfront about the condition, and several city officials were furious when the details of the deal leaked out through reports in the local media. City officials accused Bayfront of violating the conditions of its lease and filed a lawsuit. Americans United, the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida filed a separate suit, charging a violation of church-state separation.

The parting did not occur smoothly. Bayfront was forcibly voted out of the BayCare alliance by the other hospitals in the group, which cited Bayfront's inability to come to an agreement with the city as the reason for the split.

Bayfront officials later certified in federal court that they have removed all religious control over the hospital and that specifically they have dropped the Ethical and Religious Directives promulgated by the Catholic Church. The hospital's board of directors then voted to reinstate the institution's old policy on abortions, which puts the decision in the hands of the patient and her doctor.

"We are back to where we were when we came in," Bayfront board chairman Larry Davis told the St. Petersburg Times. "The physician can do whatever he thinks is necessary for the patient."

Americans United and its allies agreed to drop the National Organization for Women v. Bayfront Medical Center, Inc. lawsuit when Bayfront announced it was leaving the Catholic alliance. Local activists continue to monitor the situation. They say they are worried that the city may allow the sale of Bayfront to another private entity, which will reinstate the restrictive policies.

But officials at Bayfront say another sale may not be necessary. They say the hospital's financial outlook is better these days, although they indicated that they may need more support from the city in the future.

Experts who monitor mergers between Catholic and secular hospitals say the church-state separation issue was a compelling reason for the split. "This is the first case I know of in which the separation of church and state issues have been raised so clearly," said Lois Uttley, director of MergerWatch, a New York organization that tracks hospital mergers.
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Title Annotation:Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Publication:Church & State
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Words:533
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