Saturday, April 14, 2007

Religion and government a bad mix at NIH

In yet another example of how mixing religion and government is a bad idea, the Washington Post reports trouble at the National Institutes of Health. The former head of the spiritual ministry department, Rev. O. Ray Fitzgerald, was accused of bias against Jewish and Catholic chaplains.

Fitzgerald was demoted from the chief chaplain's post two weeks ago after the EEOC, which cited the "animus," and the Merit Systems Protection Board ordered the rehiring of and back pay for the priest, the Rev. Henry Heffernan.

NIH officials "endorsed intolerance, and they reinforced intolerance with intolerance," said Rabbi Reeve Brenner, who testified last year in support of the priest and was fired as a hospital chaplain in February. He has filed a complaint with the Merit Board, an agency that hears federal personnel disputes, saying that he was removed by NIH as retribution for his testimony.
The chaplains tend to the spiritual needs of patients on the NIH campus. Fitzgerald employed a "generic chaplaincy" approach, which didn't really work. Non-Catholic chaplains were unable to perform the Catholic sacraments, such as hearing confessions and performing last rites. When a priest, Father Henry Heffernan, came in on his day off to offer these services, he was suspended by Fitzgerald for disobeying an order to not come into work.

Another ousted chaplain, Greek Orthodox lay minister Edar Rogler, is suing the Department of Health and Human Services, NIH's parent agency, saying that she also was removed for testifying in support of Heffernan. In her lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Maryland, and in her testimony in Heffernan's case, she says NIH officials hatched a plan, "Operation Clean Sweep," to purge staff members who cooperated in the priest's complaint.

Rogler alleges that Fitzgerald made frequent anti-Semitic comments about Brenner. In her lawsuit, she says that Fitzgerald referred to Brenner as "the butthead Jew" and "the crass Jew."

"He would not refer to the rabbi ever by his name," Rogler said in an interview. "It was always 'that Jew, that Jew.' " She was fired from her part-time chaplain's job in 2005 after she said she informed NIH officials that she planned to testify before the EEOC on behalf of Heffernan. The EEOC called her testimony more credible than Fitzgerald's.
NIH has long been a microcosm for what is wrong in society as a whole. In the 1990's dozens of women came forward with complaints of sexual harassment and sex discrimination. It isn't clear whether those complaints were ever properly addressed.

When decisions about faith are religated to the 'majority' faith tradition, others traditions clearly suffer. When decisions about equality are made by affluent, white, presumably straight men, women and people of color suffer.

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