Where are churches in health-care debate?

Moral issue? » Some Utah faith leaders are joining the call for reform, others remain silent.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For Julie Chamberlain, "access to affordable health care" is not just a catchphrase.

Nor is it simply a personal issue, although it is, indeed, that.

Chamberlain, a Layton mother of four who works as a medical transcriptionist, is left to pay $40,000 in medical bills her uninsured husband incurred several months before his death in May.

Access to affordable health care, Chamberlain says, is foremost a moral issue, one that people who say they are religious need to claim for their own.

"Most churches are being too careful. We're being way too careful," says Chamberlain, a member of United Church of Christ Congregational in Ogden. "I feel like we should have a big sign out on Harrison Boulevard."

But this summer's town-hall meetings, in which thousands of Americans aired deep distrust of reform efforts by President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress, have inspired faith leaders to wade into the debate.

"That is not the only voice that needs to be heard," says Rabbi Tracee Rosen, of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City. Too many people suffer because they lack good health insurance and medical care.

"This [reform effort] is a window of opportunity. If it closes again, we will do devastating harm to this country."

While some religions long have advocated reform that would extend health care to those living in poverty and to the working poor, others are just finding their voices.

At a South Salt Lake prayer vigil coordinated by the Coalition of Religious Communities earlier this week, leaders of Jewish, Muslim and Christian congregations spoke of a shared belief that God wants people to take care of one another.

"I want to lift up the vision that takes everybody as our brothers and our sisters," says the Rev. Eun-sang Lee, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, who attended the vigil.

Like many faith leaders, Lee stops short of endorsing particular legislation or claiming to know precisely how the system should be reformed.

But health care, he says, "is a basic human right."

The Rev. Steve Klemz, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City, hopes faith-filled people can reframe the debate so there is "honest discussion and discernment."

"Our prayers," Klemz says, "are always for health and wholeness for everyone."

Imam Shuaib-ud Din, of the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy, says he plans to speak more with fellow Muslims about how teachings on compassion extend to the health-care debate.

"Prophet Muhammad emphasized caring for the poor," Din says. "When we look at health coverage, we look it as people who have less."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken no position on health-care reform, spokesman Scott Trotter says, nor on how LDS teachings should influence members' views on the subject.

U.S. bishops of the Roman Catholic Church for decades have argued that health care is a basic human right, says Dee Rowland, government liaison for the Salt Lake City Diocese. "It is a fundamental issue of human life and dignity."

While some provisions of pending legislation are unacceptable to Catholics, such as an expansion of abortion rights and a lack of protections for health-care providers to exercise freedom of conscience, the bishops, remain advocates of reform.

"It is so needed," Rowland says. "We're all better off when no one in society is suffering."

Nonetheless, she says, the church hierarchy has fallen short in communicating that message to U.S. Catholics. "We sure have not done enough about educating Catholics in the pews about this."

At United Church of Christ Congregational in Ogden, such an educational effort is under way.

Member Tom Szalay spoke from the pulpit last Sunday about his views after studying the issue. "What does it mean to heed Jesus' call? Does it mean we give outrageous profits to insurance companies? ... Is it to help drug companies make ads for Viagra?" Szalay asked, challenging his fellow worshippers.

Chamberlain, 46, says that although she is busy rearing children alone -- she has three ages 8 through 15 along with a 19-year-old son -- she is becoming engaged in the topic that has so affected her life.

The family's main breadwinner, she dropped insurance last December after her new employer jacked up premiums higher than the family could afford.

Her husband was in the hospital the next month, and now she's left with the bills.

In August, she wrote a long letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, telling her wrenching story and urging him to support reform. On Wednesday, she and two of her children attended a health-care reform vigil at the Utah Capitol.

"I've gotten more outspoken," she says.

Carolyn Somer, chairwoman of the board of deacons at United Church of Christ Congregational, says she had a tough time listening to Utahns reject health-care reform at a recent town meeting. Some said the poor deserve what they get, which is little or no health care.

"That's not what's being said to me in scripture," Somer says. "We are, each of us, the beloved. People are dying for lack of access to health care for things that are treatable. That should not be happening in our country."

She says Americans must reach out and help one another.

"That is in all faiths," Somer says. "That's not just a Christian belief."


The Word on caring for others

» From Jewish scripture (Old Testament): "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." Leviticus 19:16.

» From Christian scripture (New Testament): "Then some people came, bringing to [Jesus] a paralytic, carried by four of them." Mark 2:3.

» From Muslim scripture (Quran): "A person whose passions respond only to his or her personal needs, and who is only concerned with his or her own personal and familial life, has long abandoned the true purpose of life." 15:3.