This story, which turned out to be one of the last I wrote for the Sun Sentinel, caused a great sensation. It went out on the Internet and whipped around the world, quickly attracting 175,000 hits and getting lots of play on, you guessed it, Fox News. I wrote it as straight-down-the-middle news story. But the reason it got so much attention is the absurdity of the hospice position: so afraid of offense, it reduces a chaplain's message to pabulum.
CHAPLAIN RESIGNS OVER RULE AT HOSPICE
By Howard Goodman
Sun Sentinel Staff Writer
A chaplain at Hospice by the Sea in Boca Raton has resigned, she says, over a ban on use of the words "God" or "Lord" in public settings.
Chaplains still speak freely of the Almighty in private sessions with patients or families, but the Rev. Mirta Signorelli said: "I can't do chaplain's work if I can't say 'God' - if I'm scripted."
Hospice CEO Paula Alderson said the ban on religious references applies only to the inspirational messages that chaplains deliver in staff meetings. The hospice remains fully comfortable with ministers, priests and rabbis offering religious counsel to the dying and grieving.
"I was sensitive to the fact that we don't impose religion on our staff, and that it is not appropriate in the context of a staff meeting to use certain phrases or 'God' or 'Holy Father,' because some of our staff don't believe at all," Alderson said.
Signorelli, of Royal Palm Beach, said the hospice policy has a chilling effect that goes beyond the monthly staff meetings. She would have to watch her language, she said, when leading a prayer in the hospice chapel, when meeting patients in the public setting of a nursing home and in weekly patient conferences with doctors, nurses and social workers.
"If you take God away from me," she said, "it's like taking a medical tool away from a nurse."
A devout Christian who acquired a master's degree in theology after a career as a psychologist, running a program for abused and neglected children, Signorelli has been ministering to the dying for 13 years. She worked at the Hospice of Palm Beach County before moving seven years ago to Hospice by the Sea, a community-based nonprofit organization that cares for terminally ill patients in Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Signorelli said that she and other chaplains were told Feb. 23 to "cease and desist from using God in prayers."
Signorelli said her supervisor recently singled her out for delivering a spiritual reflection in the chapel that included the word "Lord" and had "a Christian connotation."
"But that was the 23rd Psalm," Signorelli said - not, strictly speaking, Christian, as it appears in the Old Testament.
"And I am well aware that there were people from the Jewish tradition in attendance. I didn't say Jesus or Allah or Jehovah. I used 'Lord' and 'God,' which I think are politically correct. I think that's as generic as you can get."
Signorelli resigned Feb. 25.
None of the six other chaplains objected to the ban on God's name, she said.
Alderson said she was surprised by Signorelli's reaction to what she characterized as a minor administrative directive aimed solely at improving the decorum of monthly staff meetings, where the desired tone from a chaplain should be motivational, not religious.
Alderson said it started after she asked a chaplain - not Signorelli - to say something "inspirational" and "thought-provoking" at a staff meeting. The remarks did not strike the secular tone she wanted, Alderson said. So, "I issued some guidelines."
Guidelines from HealthCare Chaplaincy, a multi-faith organization, state that professional chaplains should "reach across faith group boundaries and not proselytize." But they don't tell chaplains to refrain from speaking about God.
"I hope this is some sort of misunderstanding," said Rita Kaufman, spokeswoman for the Association of Professional Chaplains, based in Schaumburg, Ill.
Hospice of Palm Beach County has not barred "God," marketing director Karen Stearns said. It does direct chaplains to be sensitive to patients' religious sensibilities.
Likewise, a ban on the word "God" was new to Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a religious-freedom organization based in Orlando.
"That seems quite bizarre, and a significant restriction on her freedom of speech," Staver said.
Noting that spirituality has been linked to mortality and morbidity rates, Staver added: "To excise God from someone who is a grief counselor seems to be an extreme and uncalled-for response."
Hospice by the Sea, founded in 1979, provides services to about 500 patients every day on an annual budget of $35 million. Most revenue comes from Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance, along with about $2.5 million a year in donations and grants, according to Philanthropic Research Inc.