Sacked for being Christian?

Nurse Caroline Petrie has been suspended from her job as a part-time community nurse in a primary care trust in Somerset for offering to pray for an elderly patient, according to the Telegraph. This has been picked up by religious commenters, including Cath (whose blog first alerted me to the news item) and Cranmer.

Naturally, they (and many of their commenters) are appalled at this apparent overreaction by the trust. They are inclined to blame anti-Christian sentiment, or excessive political-correctness.

But they should be careful not to overstate the oppression that the actual incident implies. We are all prone to falling into a persecution mentality. For some further, highly relevant context, consider the following details. (I’m getting these from the Telegraph article, with corroboration from the Daily Mail.)

This was not an isolated incident. Mrs. Petrie regularly offers unsolicited prayers (formerly including handing out prayer cards). She has been reprimanded for this before, and has been told “you must not use your professional status to promote causes that are not related to health.” That is a fair and relevant guideline. (It seems she stopped handing out the cards after that.)

She remembers, “I was told not to force my faith on anyone but I could respond if patients themselves brought up the subject [of religion].” So she is not to proactively offer prayer, but may offer prayer if asked by the patient. Again, a fair guideline that balances her professional responsibilities with her religious freedom.

Mrs. Petrie says “I only offered to pray for her because I was concerned about her welfare and wanted her to get better.”

Well, prayer has been tested and has failed the scientific tests that we require of all medical interventions. She has every right to her religious beliefs, but she has an obligation to respect the boundary between the standard of evidence required by her profession and that she needs for her faith. If I were her patient, I’d be nettled at an offer of prayer for this reason. I want my health care professionals to be focusing on proven and effective techniques, not disproven supernatural techniques.

(Deena points out to me that Mrs. Petrie could easily just pray for patients anyway, and not mention it to them. Surely that satisfies both her beliefs and her professional guidelines.)

She says “[husband] Stuart and I have decided to put God first in our lives.” That’s their choice. But extends it into a choice to disregard reasonable guidelines of professional conduct. It is hardly persecution to be suspended for failing to follow those guidelines, after fair warning.

So she was given reasonable guidelines about the appropriate way to include her personal, non-medical beliefs in her professional, medical life. She was warned by her employer. And she decided to disregard the guidelines and the warnings. The trust’s reaction is appropriate; Mrs. Petrie is not being discriminated against.

It looks like the Christians in this case are upset, not because their beliefs are being marginalized, but because they are not being given preferential treatment. (This is particularly apparent in some of Cranmer’s statements.)

I have to remind them that this country still has an established church that holds seats in parliament (among other appalling privileges). How would you feel to live in a country where, say, Hindus had such a legislative advantage, if they began complaining because they were not being given special dispensation to promote their religion as they went about their publicly-funded roles?


6 Responses to “Sacked for being Christian?”

  1. cath Says:

    But, (i) offering “unsolicited prayer” is not a promotion of your religion; and (ii) the NHS explicitly encourages its staff to attend to the spiritual wellbeing of patients.The efficacy of prayer is not at issue. Nor is it a question of whether some instantiation of Christanity ought to be nationally privileged. It’s a case of whether Christians still have the freedom to act as Christians in the public sphere as well as in private. Would you really be nettled if I offered to pray for you at your viva? Would it count as harrassment? Should you mention to my supervisor that the offer was made, in case someone might get offended?

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Thanks for the reply, Cath.As far as (i), I think it really depends on the context. Health care professionals hold a very real sort of power over their patients, and in any power relationship extra sensitivity may be prudent when it comes to deeply personal issues like religion.As for (ii), if that’s the case then you have a point: this would be inconsistency on the part of NHS guidelines. Perhaps they’re trying to have the best of both worlds – make pleasant sounds about ‘holistic’ health, while bending over backwards not to offend anyone. Nobody has the right not to be offended (a fact that seems lost on some of those reacting to the humanist bus ads – see here and here).Would I be nettled if you offered to pray for me at my viva? No. I would accept it as an honest expression of well-wishing, and you shouldn’t fear reprisal for making the offer. If, on the other hand, you were tutoring me before an exam and offered to spend part of the tutorial in a prayer rather than covering material, we would have a problem. (Even then, we would ideally be able to solve it in person rather than escalating it.)This is an issue that requires balance. Religious observance as a required part of the running of public institutions is unacceptable, be it in schools, hospitals, or government. On the other hand, to ban people from expressing their identity and beliefs simply for fear of offending someone is an excessive infringement of liberty.Mrs. Petrie’s case falls somewhere between these two extremes. It does sound like the NHS trust is trying to over-PC themselves.On the other hand, this statement from an article yesterday makes it hard for me to feel sorry for her:”If they said ‘please don’t ask patients to pray’ then I am sorry, I can’t promise that, so where do we go from there?”She wants to be able to ask patients to pray? This sounds like she is not simply trying to express her beliefs through her work; she wants to use her work as an opportunity to proselytize. If that is the case (and I realize I may be reading more into the quote than she meant), then she goes too far and sanctions are appropriate.(Also in that article, we learn that she has been reinstated. An ambiguous result, as she sounds like she plans to carry on as she has done, and the trust maintains that she must wait for patients to initiate by requesting prayer.)

  3. notsofriendlyhumanist Says:

    I’d like to reiterate that she’s being asked to follow the same guidelines that everyone else has to follow. To claim that you’re being discriminated against in such circumstances is nothing short of blind.Why can’t she just pray for them, and not mention it? Do prayers only work if you’ve asked permission to pray? Clearly through praying she is not looking out for the welfare of her patients as she claims, but is trying to promote her faith in the public sphere.

  4. Timothy Mills Says:

    Almost made a new post on this, but I think it’s basically just more of the same. Cath has put a comment on her original post pointing to this Telegraph article in which a school worker, Jennie Cain, claims she faces disciplinary action because (a) her daughter was discussing religion with a friend, and (b) she (Mrs. Cain) send a private e-mail to some church members asking them to pray about the matter.The Telegraph article paints a grim picture of religious discrimination. I’ve no doubt the Daily Mail does an even more gleeful job of crying persecution on behalf of a downtrodden Christianity. But a quick Google search throws up this article from a news source more local to Mrs. Cain. It paints a different picture, in which the child was using hell as a threat to the other child.The reason for the disciplinary action is not made obvious, so it’s possible someone in the school may have over-reacted. But it really looks like the Caroline Petrie case: disciplinary action against a staff member for inappropriate conduct is being spun into religious discrimination by the staff member and by the Christian Institute (which seems to be providing legal aid for both cases).There is certainly some anti-Christian sentiment in the world. Just as there is anti-atheist sentiment, anti-Muslim sentiment, and so on. But just because one is disciplined at work and hold X beliefs does not mean that the workplace discriminates against X beliefs. The bar for demonstrating proof of such discrimination should be higher than “the Christian Institute is able to distort and spin this incident as religious persecution”.

  5. cath Says:

    Couple of comments -“But just because one is disciplined at work and hold X beliefs does not mean that the workplace discriminates against X beliefs.” Not sure what relevance this has, considering they in both cases the discipline strikes directly at the expression of X beliefs?Re offering to pray for someone – still not convinced that this counts as “promoting” your religion (does offering you an acupuncture session for your bad back “promote” acupuncture? rather than simply make it available as an option to be taken up or not as desired?), but even if you do construe it at promotion of religion, y’all seem to talk as if this is automatically a heinous and dreadful thing. And naturally i’m not seeing why.Also not sure if there’s a bit of a misconception about the function of prayer. It’s never been part of orthodox christian practice to pray and do nothing else. (Hence, cute poster image attacks a parody of prayerfulness.) So I could run a tutorial lasting a full hour of nothing but working through exam questions etc, and still want to pray: prayer is not a substitute for using other practical means to the end. So again it’s hard for me to understand why someone is automatically castigated for being unprofessional simply for wanting to pray along with all the other activities they undertake. A final ps – the Christian Institute is about the sanest and most professional lobby groups that I can think of who promote orthodox evangelical Christian beliefs. In my experience they tend not to spin things, other than in the sense of “spin” that equates to “making the case”. You might not agree with the stance they take (altho on questions of freedom of speech, eg, i expect you’d find a lot of common ground) or find their, naturally Christian, underlying principles palatable, but i wouldn’t be ashamed of recognising them as a perfectly respectable organisation.

  6. Discrimination or hysteria? « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] have been more developments since my recent post about nurse Caroline Petrie. Cath and I have exchanged some discussion on our respective blogs, but […]

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