Building off of a bill he passed last year in the Arizona Legislature allowing clergy to visit patients in hospitals, Rep. Quang Nguyen (R – Prescott) is sponsoring a bill to implement the same visitation rights for residents of long-term care facilities.
The legislation passed the House with a near-unanimous vote last month and was referred to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last week. Despite the bill’s broad support, several committee members questioned how “clergy” would be defined in the law and whether the language is inclusive enough.
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House Bill 2449 would require long-term care facilities to allow clergy members to visit a resident if the institution’s visitation policy already allows any kind of visitation, or when a resident’s death is imminent. Currently, no clergy are allowed to visit patients in long-term care facilities due to COVID concerns, Nguyen said.
The bill allows facilities to deny entry to otherwise-qualified clergy who test positive for COVID upon entry.
Nguyen said the intention of the bill is to address multiple instances of clergy being denied visitation during the pandemic in order to give religious or spiritual support to long-term care facility patients.
“I firmly believe that spiritual care is just as important and necessary as medical care, and I believe the language in this bill provides protection to both health care facilities as well as visitors … At this point, people are dying without spiritual care.”
Sens. Raquel Teran (D – Glendale), Sally Ann Gonzales (D – Santa Cruz), and Kelly Townsend (R – Mesa) voiced concern about who would make the decision about how “clergy” is defined and is permitted visitation.
As Gabaldon noted, certain religious or spiritual leaders, like those of her native Yoeme tribe, don’t have official certification as clergy. She said non-traditional spiritual leaders like these should be guaranteed visitation in the bill. The current legislation does not specify which individuals are considered clergy.
Nguyen’s response was that “there is no language in [the bill] that would exclude anybody.” He said he believes whoever is running the facility in which an individual is seeking visitation would make the final decision on whether they qualify.
Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, said during his testimony in support that if who is considered “clergy” is explicitly defined in the bill, it might actually have a counter-effect and be detrimental. From his perspective, the bill language is intentionally broad to encompass varying definitions of “clergy.”
Sen. Nancy Barto (R – Phoenix), the committee’s chair, agreed:
“I think trying to dig in and trying to find a definition other than ‘clergy’ is going to be problematic. And we will be excluding people because we cannot list all of those that could possibly [qualify as] a supportive type of spiritual advisor.”
An additional provision of the bill allows a clergy member to file litigation against a facility that denies visitation access to a clergy member.
Teran also raised the issue of the high cost of litigation if a prospective visitor is denied visitation under the bill. Gonazales agreed, saying by the time the clergy member sued the facility, it would be too late if the patient is indeed approaching death.
Nguyen said he will not consider amendments to the legislation that would address the committee members’ concerns. He and Johnson said another piece of legislation would be warranted to add additional provisions.
“This is about clergy visitation, and I think if you or the other senators would offer up a bill to cover the other portions, I would gladly co-sponsor it and make it happen,” Nguyen said”
The bill ultimately passed the committee with a vote of 4-2. Gabaldon and Teran were the only members to vote against it. Nguyen showed no intention of amending the bill to address their concerns.